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Medical school program focuses on oral health education

Roanoke, Va.—Medical students in the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine classes of 2014 and 2015 are learning specifics on oral health through a groundbreaking program that includes nearly 30 hours of oral health education and clinical experience in students’ first two years of medical school.

Image: Hands on: Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine students get some clinic time with instructor Lisa Russell, clinical lead dental assistant at Carilion Clinic
Hands on: Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine students get some clinic time with instructor Lisa Russell, clinical lead dental assistant at Carilion Clinic

The Oral Medicine/Oral Health component was developed through a cooperative effort between Dr. George A. Levicki, president and CEO, Delta Dental of Virginia; Dr. Charles “Bud” Conklin, associate professor, Department of Surgery, Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine; and Cynda Johnson, M.D., Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine’s president and founding dean.

Dr. Levicki, a Virginia Tech alumnus, said his colleagues at Delta Dental wanted to be part of a positive memorial to the school in the aftermath of the campus shooting tragedy in April 2007, when 32 people were killed and 17 wounded by a student.

“The leadership team at Delta Dental desperately wanted to do something to help,” said Dr. Levicki. “Rather than donate to a general fund, we thought a donation should be directed toward a program that would represent the antithesis of the violence and harm inflicted on that horrible day.”

Dr. Levicki said he had long been frustrated that medical students received little oral health education, and establishing the school’s first oral health curriculum seemed a natural way to make a positive impact on patients’ health and well being and to save lives.

Image: Dr. Levicki
Dr. Levicki
“We hope that the medical students at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine will use their specialized oral health education to become even better doctors and to promote the power of healthy smiles and healthy bodies for a healthier life,” said Dr. Levicki. “This new curriculum represents a true advance in the approach to the practice of medicine and how medical schools train doctors by incorporating the growing body of evidence demonstrating the vital connections between oral health and overall body health.”

The curriculum includes lectures and clinical training on general oral medicine and oral health; oral exams; oral cancer; oral manifestations of systemic disease; common oral pathologies; medical management of patients; and clinical skills training on-site at the dental clinic. The program also established an annual oral health lectureship to highlight the important link between oral health and overall health. A curriculum for third- and fourth-year students is now under development.

“One of our faculty members, a family practice physician, captured the value of this model best when she told me that it had inspired her to change the way she performs patient exams,” said Dr. Johnson. “That’s exactly what we’re hoping for—to teach physicians to incorporate oral exams into their practice and ultimately to improve health outcomes for patients everywhere.”

The school’s curriculum already included an emphasis on interprofessionalism, and students have been encouraged to examine the roles between various health care providers including medical students, nurses, physician assistants and allied health providers.

Image: Dr. Johnson
Dr. Johnson

“Our goal,” said Dr. Johnson, “is to have the professions learn to work together and respect one another’s roles in health care. They’ll then be able to work more effectively as a team in the clinics, which will improve patient outcomes.”

The program will help to forge new approaches to collaboration between physicians and dentists that ultimately benefit the patient, said Dr. Conklin.

“When you consider the fact that our aging population is four times more likely to visit a physician than a dentist, then it becomes clear that offering oral health education in medical schools is critical,” said Dr. Conklin. “With oral cancer, early diagnosis lead to better survival rates, so it becomes paramount that physicians be able to provide the appropriate exam.”

The new program is popular with students as well.

Image: Interprofessional education: Dr. Bud Conklin instructs medical students through the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine’s oral health education program.
Interprofessional education: Dr. Bud Conklin instructs medical students through the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine’s oral health education program.
“As a student planning to enter a primary care field and work with underserved populations, I was especially glad to have our oral health curriculum,” said Robert Brown, a member of the school’s charter class of 2014. “For many of the patients I’ll see, regular dental care is a luxury. Thanks to Dr. Conklin and his team, I now understand the significance of what I can uncover with an oral exam. This curriculum has made me feel confident that I can detect oral cancers and significantly impact the lives of my patients. On top of that, I feel I can communicate intelligently with my dental colleagues in a way I couldn’t before.”

“Education is the key piece to ensuring that our medical colleagues are comfortable enough to not only look in the mouths of their patients, but then enable them to make informed referrals to dentists,” said Dr. Monica Hebl, a general dentist in Milwaukee and a member of the ADA Council on Access, Prevention and Interprofessional Relations. “Programs like this one have the potential to increase the oral and overall health of patients through increased collaboration between physicians and dentists.”