Management + Leadership

Taking a team approach to oral health


“When was the last time you visited the dentist?” “Do you floss regularly?” These two questions are an essential part of my dental history repertoire that I ask all my patients. However, this time I was not the one asking the questions, I was the one answering the questions. Earlier last year I switched my primary care physician (PCP) and was inspired by her interest in my oral health. As a dentist we often find ourselves contacting physicians for medical clearance for our medically compromised patients. We often forget that physicians and other non-dental healthcare providers can also play a vital role in promoting oral health.

I asked my PCP if she asked these questions because I was a dental student, she laughed openly. She said that these questions have been a standard in her initial medical history since she finished her residency. As a graduate of a medical school that has an affiliated dental school, the systemic manifestations of dental diseases were emphasized in her curriculum. She mentioned that her cardiologist colleagues often obtain dental consults prior to open-heart surgery procedures. The reason being active periodontal disease could potentially cause postsurgical complications.

According to a 2008 journal article from American Family Physicians “90% of physicians support the incorporation of oral health interventions into wellness visits, but 40% report receiving no medical school or residency training in oral health.” In an effort to increase the knowledge base of family medicine physicians, oral health education is now a required component of their training since 2006. In 2004 the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine Group on Oral Health developed the innovative Smiles for Life curriculum. This curriculum is the primary oral health curriculum for the majority of our nations family medicine residency programs and is also being utilized by nurses, physician assistants and midwives. As a part of our “Patient II: Team-based Oral Diagnosis” course we were required to complete 4/7 modules of the Smiles for Life curriculum. I found the modules to be very comprehensive and an excellent resource for non-dental health care providers to build their working knowledge base of oral health issues.

Oral health and systemic health are intrinsically related. Furthermore, oral health can serve as a window to our systemic health. Going forward, I hope that the relationship between dentists and non-dental health care providers is strengthened. This will not only improve the quality of patient care provided but also broadened our scope of practice.

What role do you believe non-dental health care providers play in promoting oral health? Have you had similar experiences with your physician?

~ Sarah Khan, Stony Brook ’16,  associate, Council on Professional Issues

Sarah Khan

Sarah Khan is a second year dental student at Stony Brook School of Dental Medicine in New York. She is also concurrently working on obtaining her Masters in Public Health. She currently serves as a council associate on ASDA's Council on Professional Issues and is the treasurer at her local chapter. In her free time she enjoys spending time with family and friends, cooking, exploring NYC, drinking tea and discovering new study snacks.

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  1. Lynn Doan says:

    Great post! I definitely agree with you and believe that all health professionals – not just the dental community – have a role in preventing oral health diseases. This is especially important for those who are uninsured and don’t have access to a dentist!

    In Colorado, we have a great statewide training program that aims to eliminate childhood caries in Colorado’s children by training ANY type of health care providers on infant oral health. The program is called Cavity Free at 3 (CF3), is a free service, and is very similar to the Smiles for Life curriculum.

    The reality is that most children see their doctors and nurses more than their dentist and in some communities, there are simply not enough dentists to provide care. That’s one of the reasons why CF3 engages and trains primary care physicians and public health practitioners.

    The training is focused on how to assess oral health, educate families, and apply fluoride varnishes on children’s teeth. Providers are also trained on how to accept Medicaid and CHP+ patients. So the idea is that children on Medicaid and CHP+ can go to their medical home and ALSO receive preventive oral health services like fluoride varnishes.

    I should also add that I don’t work for CF3 and do not get paid for promoting this program. But as a public health advocate and pre-dental student in Colorado, I think the program is awesome!

    Check them out:

  2. When I visit my primary care physician, I don’t think I have ever been asked about my dental habits. It would be great if more physicians emphasized the need for regular dental cleanings.

  3. Overall health and oral health go hand and hand. Bad oral health can make everything else a nightmare. Make sure you do as this article advises and floss regularly. That is very important.

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