Dr. Richard ValachovicIn this month’s letter, ADEA President and CEO Dr. Rick Valachovic hears from experts in pediatric sedation about efforts to reduce adverse events in the dental office.

You’ve read the headlines or heard them on TV, and if you’re like me, the stories seem surreal. How, you wonder, could this happen again?

While deaths in the dental office are exceedingly rare, they do occur, and it’s especially troubling when a child’s life is lost. The good news is, we know a lot about why this happens, and we can do a great deal to prevent future tragedies.

I recall the bygone days when hospitalization and general anesthesia were often required to treat the youngest patients. The ability to sedate children in the dental office was a major advancement, but it is not without serious associated risks. Studies show a low but persistent rate of life-threatening respiratory events induced by sedation, and the size of children’s airways makes them especially vulnerable to complications that can end in death.

A 2013 study revealed 44 media reports of such events between 1980 and 2012. How does that compare with the number of children sedated for dental procedures during those decades or today? No one knows for sure, but observers agree that the use of pediatric sedation is on the rise.

One such observer is Stephen Wilson, D.M.D., M.A., Ph.D., Chief Dental Officer at Blue Cloud Pediatric Surgery Centers and author of the first textbook solely devoted to pediatric sedation for dental procedures. Steve also served for three years on the ADEA Board of Directors. He published a study in 2001 on the use of procedural sedation (referred to as “conscious sedation” to reflect that patients remain more responsive compared with an unresponsive state when under general anesthesia). He found an increased use of procedural sedation compared with the preceding decade, a trend that he believes continues to this day. Why? A multitude of reasons—early childhood caries are on the rise, with parents eager for treatment; many preschool-aged children are ill equipped to sit still for dental procedures; some school-aged children are paralyzed by fear and anxiety in the dental setting; and more.

“I think sedation is increasing to meet a need that’s out there, and that’s appropriate,” Steve told me. The occurrence of adverse events, he believes, boils down to inadequate training—in both sedation and rescue techniques.

“General practitioners receive very little if any didactic or clinical sedation experiences in dental schools,” Steve told me. “When they graduate and go out into practice, they’re basically using sedation for the first time on their own. They’re essentially self-taught, so they may not be aware of guidelines or procedures or even basic pharmacology, and consequently, they get into trouble.”

To make matters worse, when trouble occurs, providers may not be prepared to intervene effectively while they wait for emergency services to arrive.

“We have this model in dentistry where the person doing the surgery is also the person who is supposed to be providing the anesthesia and monitoring the patient’s safety. You really can’t do both safely,” says Paul Casamassimo, D.D.S., M.S., Professor Emeritus in the Division of Pediatric Dentistry at The Ohio State University College of Dentistry.

In recent years, Paul and Steve have been involved in developing and editing the pediatric sedation guidelines jointly issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD). Paul also led the task force that revised the Accreditation Standards for Advanced Specialty Education Programs in Pediatric Dentistry about a decade ago. In 2017, the Commission on Dental Accreditation reissued those standards, which now require students and residents to complete a minimum of 50 patient encounters in which sedative agents other than nitrous oxide are used. In at least half of those cases, residents must act as the sole primary operator. Observing sedative procedures doesn’t count.

These requirements represent vastly more preparation than the typical general dentist receives in a weekend CE course on sedation, no matter how high the quality may be, and Paul feels it’s warranted.

“Someone who might be mildly sedated can go into moderate to deep sedation just because of their physiology, and dentists have to be able to handle those types of unexpected effects,” Paul told me.

He is pleased that the sedation standards for pediatric dental residents have been strengthened, and he praises the sedation training oral and maxillofacial surgeons receive. But Paul notes with concern that sedation training is not a standard feature of most general practice residencies, nor is it included in the typical predoctoral curriculum. Meanwhile, the practice standards for dentists who use sedation vary substantially from state to state.

There are exemplars, including Paul’s state of Ohio. The state’s dental board lays out stringent criteria that dentists must meet before receiving a permit to provide deep sedation or general anesthesia. Requirements include completing accredited graduate-level training and passing an onsite facility evaluation to ensure that appropriate personnel, drugs and equipment are in place to monitor and rescue patients.

States can also help ensure patient safety by requiring dental offices to become certified through the American Association for Accreditation of Ambulatory Surgery Facilities and by bolstering their Medicaid programs. Low reimbursement rates for publicly funded pediatric dental visits make it difficult for families to find willing providers, Steve says, let alone dentists who are well trained in sedation and skilled in managing young children.

This is an art in and of itself, as anyone who has worked with very young children can tell you. In Paul’s view, detailed in a 2015 article in the Journal of Dental Education, problems associated with pediatric sedation arise in part from how little exposure most dentists and dental students have to treating very young children, especially those with complex needs. “If you’re going to practice family dentistry,” Paul believes, “you’ve got to be able to take care of kids from one year of age and people with special needs, and the training needs to reflect that.”

He thinks raising the training standards for specialty programs and for dentists who want to provide sedation is probably the best avenue for improving safety. As far as predoctoral students are concerned, he’d like to see elective opportunities that meet state dental board criteria for those who want to provide sedation. Absent that training, he recommends communicating that sedation is not in the realm of general dental care and putting “the fear of God, so to speak,” in future dentists who see sedation as a simple procedure.

I appreciate Paul’s sentiments. In an ideal world, all children who need sedation would be referred to highly trained specialists, but there simply aren’t enough of those specialists to go around. And the alternative—general anesthesia in a hospital operating room—comes with its own set of problems as I learned firsthand during my pediatric residency at Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Boston. I, for one, am glad that we now have the option of sedating children who need care in outpatient settings. The question is, what more can we do to ensure that providers are well trained in sedation and in rescue techniques?

Steve has given a lot of thought to what comprehensive training might look like. On the didactic side, he would like all dental schools to give predoctoral students a common foundation by:

  • Familiarizing them with the AAP/AAPD pediatric sedation guidelines.
  • Having them review morbidity and mortality case studies to understand that almost all sedation-related cases involve the respiratory system or overdosing with local anesthetics.
  • Teaching them about physiologic monitoring devices, such as pulse oximeters and capnographs.
  • Emphasizing the need to have a person in the operatory whose only task is to monitor patients during deeper levels of sedation and intervene to rescue if problems arise.
  • Explaining the implications of the sedation routes (oral, intranasal, intravenous).
  • Offering simulation training in advanced life support and rescue.

This last item is costly and time-consuming, but has been shown to be more effective than didactic education alone, and on most of our campuses, simulation centers are already in place. At present, general practitioners and some specialists receive very minimal training in this area, sometimes as little as a basic course in CPR.

Steve acknowledges the challenge of adding to an already packed curriculum, but he points out that “Sedation is the one aspect of dentistry we do that can be life-threatening to the patient.”

Can sedation emergencies be eliminated? Probably not, but we can prepare ourselves better to deal with them when they happen. We can start by considering curricular changes such as Steve suggests, by supporting legislative and regulatory efforts that would improve safety and by reducing barriers to care that allow children’s dental problems to become acute.

Paul tells me that the AAP, AAPD and other dental and medical specialty organizations are working in concert to eliminate deaths from pediatric dental sedation. It’s time for the dental education community to seriously consider what more we can do to ensure that providers are well-trained in sedation and rescue techniques.

Dr. Richard ValachovicIn this month’s letter, ADEA President and CEO Dr. Rick Valachovic makes clear why you should plan ahead now to attend next year’s ADEA Annual Session & Exhibition.

The one complaint we hear following every ADEA Annual Session & Exhibition is a happy problem to have: There are simply too many sessions people want to attend and no way they can physically attend all of them.

While we haven’t found a magic potion that allows dental educators to be in two places at once, this year in Orlando we did introduce a media-rich environment that let attendees to experience more of the meeting than ever before. Meet ADEA TV, our latest communications venture, which debuted to rave reviews. Five monitors became hubs in the convention hall where people gathered throughout the day to view Annual Session highlights. The production team did a stellar job making the videos feel interactive. As one person I spoke with commented, it felt as though the people on screen were talking directly to you. But as the infomercials say, don’t take my word for it. Visit the website to see for yourself!

We also upped our social media game this year with the help of Western University of Health Sciences College of Dental Medicine (WU CDM) Assistant Dean for Clinical Education, Hubert worked with the ADEA Division of Communications and Membership to organize a Social Media Squad comprised of members of the ADEA Council of Students, Residents and Fellows and WU CDM students. Together, they chronicled each day’s events under the hashtag #ADEA2018, posting 500 messages that reached ADEA’s 10,000 Twitter followers and thousands more via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.

The Annual Session mobile app featured something new as well: ADEA Quest. While not quite Pokémon Go, the game succeeded in sending players throughout the Exhibit Hall on a hunt that spurred conversations among attendees, exhibitors and ADEA staff. Players collected points as they went and could enter raffles to win prizes. Following many sessions, we also introduced ADEA TouchPoll™ surveys to get an instant read on how members viewed select events. Respondents were entered into a raffle, and one lucky third-year student, WU CDM’s Katie Oates, went home with the grand prize—complimentary registration and round-trip airfare to next year’s Annual Session in Chicago.

One highlight of every ADEA Annual Session & Exhibition is the ADEA Political Spotlight. It is always entertaining, but this year it also was genuinely educational, combining both substance and style. Roll Call reporters Mary C. Curtis and Patricia Murphy shared the filters they use to distinguish news from noise as they cover U.S. politics and policy. For example:

  • Hope Hicks leaving the White House?
  • Congress voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act for the 69th time?
  • Anything that happens on the Hill between now and the midterm elections?

All noise, but luckily for us, the information shared at this year’s Annual Session was most definitely news, and welcome news at that.
ADEA members are taking seriously the need to prepare for the road ahead, and in session after session, they were eager to share the myriad individual ways they are gearing up for the challenges that lie around the corner. This year’s theme, Vision 2030, amplified those efforts by putting them into a larger context and challenging ADEA members to imagine how our community can continue to thrive in a rapidly changing environment. As Leon Assael, D.M.D., now Immediate Past Chair of the ADEA Board of Directors, is fond of pointing out, 2030 is a mere 12 years away, so we have no time to lose in getting ready for the sweeping changes coming to dental education.

Three Chair of the Board symposia explored the specific challenges dental education will confront in the years ahead, while the Opening Plenary speaker, futurist Mike Walsh, offered a big-picture perspective. He issued a wake-up call for all of us to reinvent, reimagine and redesign the oral health ecosystem, urging us to “think big,” “ask dangerous questions” and consider what roles automation, artificial intelligence and algorithms can play in our teams.

The Closing Plenary speaker, Natalie Kogan, also addressed the need for a cultural shift, but reassured us that “It is okay not to feel okay about change.” Her upbeat presentation on striving for emotional health and resilience in the workplace seemed to strike a chord with an audience all too cognizant of the stresses associated with preparing for and practicing our professions. Our community cares deeply about student well-being, as evidenced by the overflow crowd at a separate session on student happiness.

A palpable feeling of calm and camaraderie permeated this year’s gathering. The Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center provided a tropical oasis where attendees could feel close to nature. Under a giant glass dome, hotel guests watched alligators and turtles bask in sunlit pools. The adjacent convention center was easy to navigate, with lots of nooks that encouraged people to sit and converse, and more than once, I overheard people talking about collaborating on proposals for next year’s Annual Session.

The programming also put people at ease. For the second year in a row, we hosted a Find Your Tribe event, during which first-time attendees received guidance on how to get the most out of the meeting from a volunteer Army of Connectors. Roughly 140 newcomers took part, double last year’s attendance. Over in the Exhibit Hall, a steady stream of members kept staff at the professional development booth busy explaining which of ADEA’s various educational offerings might be right for them. Meanwhile, the introduction of electronic media was seamless, with people of all generations gathering around screens and interacting comfortably as though they were digital natives.

If this year’s gathering went off without a hitch, it was no accident. Keith Mays, D.D.S., M.S., Ph.D., Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, and the rest of the Annual Session Planning Committee did a phenomenal job pulling together this year’s programming, and ADEA staff members worked diligently to address member feedback from past gatherings. Under Krisa Haggins’ leadership, the ADEA Meetings, Conferences and Education Technology team stepped up to provide an exceptional experience. Members told me they felt listened to and heard.

Because we were looking to the future, it seems only right that students, residents and fellows had a strong presence this year. These young people who come through our doors are the most important part of what we do and why we do it. On Monday, we hosted the inaugural ADEA Summit for National Student Leaders, which brought representatives of seven associations supporting dental students together to form a strategic alliance in pursuit of common goals. The ADEA Student Diversity Leadership Program drew another 53 students who left with individual leadership plans and a new vision for their program’s future, one focused around reducing health disparities and promoting student well-being.

The allied dental community, including dental therapists and a record number of students, was also well-represented this year, and the entire allied community was moved to see Dr. Colleen Brickle, RDH, RF, Ed.D., Dean of Health Sciences at ‎Normandale Community College and one of Minnesota’s dental therapy pioneers, receive an ADEA Presidential Citation award.

There are so many more moments I’d love to describe:

  • The remarkably moving acceptance speeches given at this year’s William J. Gies Awards for Vision, Innovation and Achievement.
  • The meeting of the ADEA Women Liaison Officers’ Group—now 45 strong including Canadian members—and their plans to work toward becoming an ADEA Special Interest Group.
  • The presence of our colleagues from Europe and beyond, with whom we made plans for two future international conclaves.
  • Three outstanding sessions presented by our Advocacy and Government Relations staff examining Medicare funding for Graduate Medical Education, health care reform and select cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • Timely presentations on licensure, prescription drug abuse and augmented reality.
  • And, of course, the 2018 ADEA GoDental Recruitment Event, which brought people from all over the country to meet face-to-face with admissions officers. One look at the rapt expressions on the faces of prospective dental students during a staged mock interview and the critique session that followed, and you were both proud of our profession and reinvigorated.

For me personally, it was a special pleasure to reconnect with a classmate of mine from my time at Harvard University, Alexia Antczak-Bouckoms, D.M.D., Sc.D., M.P.H., who spoke during the “In the Mix” Plenary. Since a 1996 spinal cord injury changed the course of her life, this dental educator has focused on raising her children and raising millions of dollars for spinal cord research.

“A person is a person,” she said, sharing her vision of inclusiveness. “It doesn’t matter what they can or can’t do. You just have to recognize the spirit of them and include them in any way that you can.” I was especially pleased to see that attending Annual Session has sparked her interest in renewing her engagement with dental education.

So what’s next for the other attendees? In March 2019 we’ll gather again—this time in Chicago to celebrate our collaborative spirit. In the meantime, I’ve no doubt we’ll be hard at work—in our Sections and SIGs, in our Councils and workgroups, in our sister associations and at individual schools—processing all that we heard and experienced in Orlando and thinking intently about how we can prepare for tomorrow. As Mike Walsh pointed out, it won’t be enough to simply invest in technology. Successful organizations also invest in their cultural “operating systems.”

“How easy is it for the next generation of leaders and professionals to share and act on their vision of the future?” he asked. “All the answers you may need are inside your organization. Question is, ‘Are you listening to these people?’”

That’s a great reminder to keep our ears—and our minds—wide open.

Dr. Richard ValachovicIn this month’s letter, ADEA President and CEO Dr. Rick Valachovic talks with dental educators at three schools that excel at meeting dentistry’s social mission.
It seems as though hardly a day goes by that I don’t read an article or an online discussion with some mention of the .

In the last several years, a growing consensus has emerged that the best way to get a handle on health care costs and improve population health is through interventions that address these social determinants—defined by Healthy People 2020 as the conditions in the places where people live, learn, work and play. Research increasingly supports the idea that these conditions can be just as influential as biomedical factors, such as a person’s birth weight or genes, when it comes to determining health status. The good news is that, unlike our fundamental biological makeup, our social circumstances are amenable to change and can be influenced by public policy.

From a dental perspective, viewing our nations’ health challenges through a public health lens-taking steps to change the conditions that are linked to disease rather than just striving for better treatmentsmakes perfect sense. Nearly all dental diseases and conditions are preventable, and while we canand dopromote prevention at the individual level, we know from experience that community-level prevention is even more powerful. Our decades-long history with community water fluoridationone of the 10 great public health achievements of the 20th centuryaptly illustrates that point.

As self-evident as all this may seem to many of us, I wonder whether we are fully conveying the importance of public health and public policy in our classrooms and clinics? Like most of today’s students, I entered dental school with every intention of becoming a private-practice dentist in my hometown, but my residency in pediatric dentistry at Boston Children’s Hospital opened my eyes to other professional pathways. At that time, the city lacked community water fluoridation, and I witnessed high levels of childhood caries as a result. I came to appreciate the impact of community factors on the health of the patients I treated and decided to enter the dental public health residency program at Harvard. That experience filled me with a strong desire to pursue a dental career that would allow me to impact populations rather than treat one patient at a time.

Not every dental student will follow in my footsteps, nor should they. Hometowns still need dentists after all. But to make major headway in improving oral health across North America, we need to make sure all our students appreciate that they are responsible to their communities as well to their individual patients.

A.T. Still University’s Arizona School of Dentistry & Oral Health (ASDOH) was founded on that proposition. Its mission is to help address our nation’s gap in access to dental care by educating “community-responsive general dentists” who are committed to providing access to care for underserved populations. Several things set ASDOH apart:

  • Students engage in service learning each year and spend at least half of their fourth year living and working in the community.
  • Public health certification is woven into the predoctoral program so that all students come to view dentistry through a public health lens.
  • Roughly 25% of dental students build on their public health certification and opt to earn a Master of Public Health degree as well.

It’s also worth mentioning that ASDOH leads in graduating American Indian dentists, the vast majority of whom return to their communities to practice.

“Social mission is built into ASDOH’s culture and curriculum,” says Dean Robert (Bob) Trombly, D.D.S., J.D., and the school’s graduates reflect this. Almost a quarter of them work in Federally Qualified Health Centers, the Indian Health Service and the military, and those who pursue private practice report a high level of involvement in community service and providing pro-bono care for underserved patients.

Bob believes that ASDOH’s strong emphasis on public health does as much to draw in students whose values align with ASDOH’s social mission as it does to instill a public health perspective.

“A.T. Still University, the National Association for Community Health Centers and our founding Dean Jack Dillenberg envisioned the dental school’s creation as a strategy to improve access to care. Community health centers continue to work with us each year to identify and recruit students,” Bob notes, which is why some individuals enter the dental school having already earned an M.P.H. degree.

ASDOH is not alone in offering a public health certificate or the opportunity to earn a dual degreean option at roughly half of our schools. Nevertheless, public health is not necessarily integral to the teaching of dentistry.

“In dental school, usually we say, if you’re interested in public health, it’s over here,” says Caswell Evans, D.D.S., M.P.H., Associate Dean for Prevention and Public Health Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Dentistry (UIC COD). He would like to see public health’s often-peripheral status change, and he’s looking for opportunities to make dentistry’s social mission more visible in a consistent and organized way.

Like ASDOH, UIC COD places a high value on educating students in the community, where they can be exposed to the people most in need of dental services. UIC COD’s commitment to public health and community engagement is visible through 16 weeklong extramural rotations in mission-driven community-based clinics. Classes on access to care, health inequities, social justice and the ways in which delivery systems strive to address these issues are also part of the mix.

Another exemplar in this regard is the East Carolina University School of Dental Medicine (ECU SoDM), which I wrote about in January. The school’s unique model of distributing clinical education across ECU SoDM clinics in underserved regions of the state gives students an acute awareness of their patients’ circumstances. As the Dean, D. Gregory (Greg) Chadwick, D.D.S., M.S., put it when we spoke, placing students in the community to care for patients is “more than just filling and drilling and extracting. It’s appreciating how people live.”

Greg is pleased with his school’s record of placing graduates in safety-net settings, but in his view, the availability of more dental providers will not be sufficient on its own to solve North Carolina’s oral health problems. Achieving that goal will require a public health perspective. “You’re going to improve oral health with community involvement, through prevention, by having your graduates understand that they have to be leaders in the community,” he insists.

Helping students develop that public health perspective appears to be closely tied with the time they spend immersed in the community. Although the Commission on Dental Accreditation’s Accreditation Standards for Dental Education Programs require that schools make community-based experiences available, these experiences are not mandatory, and their extent varies considerably from institution to institution. Nevertheless, we’ve come a long way from the days when all clinical education occurred within the footprint of the dental school. Today, a considerable portion of clinical education happens in the community, making it easier for students to grasp the public health nature of their work.

Indeed, each year the ADEA Survey of Dental School Seniors reveals the increasing value that students place on their community-based experiences and the increased likelihood that they will expand the pool of patients they treat as a result. These developments are welcome and worth building on, but so are many other facets of what we do. As Bob put it, “Each school has its own unique mission and focus. You have to work with what’s consistent with the overall university mission.”

I agree. Even at ECU SoDM, where Greg calls social mission “part of our DNA,” other priorities also demand attention.

“We are having more and more conversations about whether it is enough to educate people who are technically skilled and kind and competent,” Margaret (Maggie) Wilson, D.D.S., M.B.A., ECU SoDM’s Vice Dean and Associate Dean for Student Affairs, told me. “I’m hearing from some colleagues that it may not be enough, but it gets down to resourcesnot just money but also your energy, your time.”

Inevitably, all dental schools must first focus on helping students gain the skills they need to provide care for individual patients. Beyond that, institutional missions will vary based on their history and tradition. For some, the emphasis will be on research and the creation of new knowledge, treatments and technologies. For others, advancing the quality of teaching and learning will take center stage.

Whatever these distinctions, our institutions must also attend to their social missions, consider how they can improve the health of the communities they serve and prepare their graduates to contribute to the public good. These goals are a natural fit for a profession rooted in prevention. Viewing what we do through a public health lens will help us achieve these aims.

Dr. Richard ValachovicIn this month’s letter, ADEA President and CEO Dr. Rick Valachovic talks with a champion of dental and primary care integration.

Michael Glick, D.M.D., has a vision for dentistry’s future. The University at Buffalo School of Dental Medicine (UB SDM) Professor sees dentistry becoming a portal to primary care.
During his tenure as Dean at UB SDM, Michael put this vision into practice. The school’s dental clinics became places where students routinely screened patients for hypertension, diabetes, and, if patients chose, HIV. The clinics also became exemplars of interprofessional care, with pharmacists, librarians and social workers on hand to help interpret patients’ medication histories, find evidence to guide treatment and connect patients to follow-up medical care and other resources.

Why introduce primary care screening into an academic dental setting? “As health care professionals, we can do much more to impact our patients’ health than we’re doing right now,” Michael told me. Most people who arrive at the dental office perceive themselves as healthy, but noncommunicable diseases take a long time to develop. By the time there are signs and symptoms, the diseases may be far advanced.

Michael considered this problem and then posed a question: “Would it be possible in a dental office to do some screening for individuals who may be at risk for developing these diseases?” His answer was, “Yes,” and several studies that he and others have conducted support this conclusion. Not only is such screening feasible, it is also accepted, even welcomed, by dentists, patients and physicians.

These findings have implications for academic dentistry. Screening for hypertension has become the norm in dental school clinics, and a number of schools are engaged in other types of primary care screening as well. (I wrote about some of these in 2013.) But the integration of primary care screening within a dental clinic setting is far from universal.

I asked Michael what would have to change for every dental school to screen for a few common health conditions in its clinics as he and his colleagues have done at Buffalo. “Not much,” he responded. “The expertise exists in every dental school to do these screenings. It’s just a matter of making it a priority.”

That said, Michael acknowledged that integrating primary care screening in nonacademic clinical practices is another matter. Many private practice offices don’t want to take on procedures that are not reimbursable by third parties. Some dentists feel uncomfortable screening for conditions that don’t manifest themselves in the oral cavity. And others have a legitimate fear that they would be courting trouble if they screen and diagnose patients but don’t provide appropriate follow-up care.

“You need a support system to ensure that the dentist knows what to do next. In a dental school, you have that support system, but you may not have that in private practice,” Michael said.

Nevertheless, Michael argued that such conditions as uncontrolled hypertension have costly consequences, and if timely screening in a dental office can mitigate those, it makes sense to integrate screening in dental practices—both for the health of patients and to reduce health care costs. As health care moves toward a value-based reimbursement system, the logic of this approach becomes all the more clear.

Michael has wrestled with some of these larger issues in his role as co-chair of the FDI World Dental Federation’s Vision 2020 think tank. In 2016, the FDI, of which ADEA is a supporting member, released a new definition of oral health, which reads: “Oral health is multi-faceted and includes the ability to speak, smile, smell, taste, touch, chew, swallow and convey a range of emotions through facial expressions with confidence and without pain, discomfort and disease of the craniofacial complex.”

The definition further states that oral health:

  • Is a fundamental component of health and physical and mental well-being. It exists along a continuum influenced by the values and attitudes of individuals and communities.
  • Reflects the physiological, social and psychological attributes that are essential to the quality of life.
  • Is influenced by the individual’s changing experiences, perceptions, expectations and ability to adapt to circumstances.

“This new definition moves dentistry from treating disease to treating a person with disease,” in Michael’s view. This shift in thinking aligns with his goal to graduate health care professionals “that happen to be dentists” as well as with trends in health care reimbursement. Michael told me that third-party payers have expressed a willingness to pay for oral health rather than dental procedures, especially as care moves to a context in which the patient is looked at holistically. He is now working with others at the FDI to develop a tool to measure oral health in all its dimensions—a step that could facilitate dentistry’s transition to value-based payment.

When we spoke last month, Michael laughed as he thought back to how he became a champion of dentistry’s role in primary care.

“I applied to both medical and dental school and could’ve gone to either,” he said, “but I thought, ‘I don’t want to be with sick people. I don’t want to be in a big institution,’ so I decided to go to dental school.”

As you may already know, it wasn’t long before Michael deviated from that path—entering academic dentistry and specializing in the care of individuals with complex medical issues, including people who had organ transplants and people with HIV/AIDS and other communicable diseases. He sees primary care activities as a natural extension of that work, having always viewed dentistry as a part of medicine.

Michael expects the relationship between dentistry and primary care to evolve slowly, but he is eager to see dentistry do more in this realm. As he and his co-author from Touro College of Dental Medicine at New York Medical College, Barbara Greenberg, M.Sc., Ph.D., wrote in the Journal of Dental Education last year, prevention and early intervention are effective for reducing the incidence and severity of increasingly prevalent conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes mellitus and infections from HIV and hepatitis C—all associated with significant morbidity and health care costs. Dental settings have shown themselves to be suitable for screening and referring patients with these conditions, so why not prepare dentists to engage in these activities?

Beyond screenings, Michael envisions a future in which dentists might give immunizations and perform other functions currently delegated to physician assistants and others, especially in regions where physicians are scarce. Currently, state law prevents these practices, but who knows what tomorrow may bring? In the meantime, let’s seize the opportunities before us, and begin to view the dental office as a portal to primary care.

Dr. Richard ValachovicIn this month’s letter, Dr. Rick Valachovic talks with North Carolinians to find out how a new model of dental education is bringing dental care to rural parts of the state.

What happens when you recruit students who are committed to rural practice and prepare them to be dentists in rural practice environments? Can such an investment make a measurable difference in improving access to dental care?

East Carolina University (ECU) set out to answer these questions when it opened the doors of its School of Dental Medicine (SoDM) in 2011. The plan for the school had many unique features, which I’ve described in this column before, but what most set this groundbreaking venture apart was the decision to move a substantial portion of clinical education to the community by building eight, identical 16-chair Community Service Learning Centers (CSLCs) in underserved areas across the state. Senior dental students—all of whom hail from North Carolina—spend three nine-week rotations at the CSLCs, practicing dentistry alongside ECU SoDM faculty and residents.

The first entity to partner with ECU to bring dental education to a rural corner of the state was a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) in Ahoskie, a town of nearly 5,500 in eastern North Carolina. Health Center Chief Executive Officer Kim Schwartz, M.A., remembers well her first meeting with Greg Chadwick, D.D.S., M.S., ECU SoDM’s Dean. The conversation that ensued was scheduled for 45 minutes. It lasted almost three hours, and after three years of planning, development and construction, the Roanoke Chowan Community Health Center in Ahoskie became the first FQHC in the nation with a co-located dental school clinic and residency program.

Dentistry’s arrival in Ahoskie worked out well, not least for Nicole Beasley, D.M.D. She grew up in Jackson, about 30 miles away, and recalls having to drive an hour to get to a dentist when she was young. She saw a career opportunity in her community’s lack of dental care and chose to attend ECU SoDM for two reasons: She felt at ease there, and she knew its mission dovetailed with her own aspirations.

After graduation, Nicole completed an Advanced Education in General Dentistry residency at the Ahoskie CSLC, and today she practices at an FQHC in Jackson. “I had always thought I wanted to be back home, but after graduating, I was weighing my options,” she told me. “When it came down to it, I just knew that the whole reason I went to dental school was to be here in the first place. Here’s where I can do the most good.”

Maggie Wilson, D.D.S., M.B.A., Vice Dean and Associate Dean for Student Affairs at ECU SoDM, couldn’t agree more with Nicole’s assessment. “It’s only once our graduates are out there in a practice, in a rural community or an underserved area, that our mission is realized,” she told me.

Maggie and Greg put me in touch with Nicole and another graduate who exemplifies ECU SoDM’s promise. Gustavo (Gus) Gasca, D.M.D., had difficulty accessing dental care as a child because he moved from Florida to North Carolina to Michigan and back each year as his Mexican-born parents followed the harvest. Gus told me he and his siblings needed to have primary teeth extracted, and their permanent teeth came in misaligned. In his brother’s case, the problem was extreme enough to draw unwanted attention from his middle and high school classmates.

As it happened, the family’s desire to see Gus go to college led to a marked improvement in their oral health. So Gus could take advanced placement courses, the family decided to live in North Carolina year-round, a choice that made the family eligible for Medicaid. Gus’s mother was finally able to address her dental pain, and his brother got the orthodontic treatment he needed.

“Getting braces changed my brother’s self-esteem,” Gus told me, and watching that transformation eventually led Gus to pursue a career in dentistry. Today he is practicing at Pollock Advanced Dental Group in Burgaw, where he primarily treats Medicaid patients and is the only dentist in a 20-mile radius who speaks Spanish. He is delighted to be “giving back.”

Where are ECU SoDM’s other graduates?

  • The majority—83 of 148—are practicing in North Carolina.
  • Seven are practicing out of state, and two will likely return when their spouses complete residencies.
  • Another 38 graduates are in General Practice Residencies.
  • Fifteen are pursuing advanced dental specialties.
  • Two are in the military.
  • One is a faculty member at ECU SoDM.

Perhaps the better question is: Are these graduates engaged in work aligned with ECU SoDM’s mission of placing dentists in rural, underserved communities? Apparently many are.

“We’d like to track this by county,” Greg told me, “but even in doing that … you have to peel the onion back. One of our graduates is working in Mecklenburg County. That’s urban, but he’s working in two Medicaid practices and seeing 100% Medicaid patients, so his work is clearly mission aligned.”

Back in Ahoskie, Kim sees ECU SoDM’s mission in practice every day. The Ahoskie CSLC provides continuous care for an established panel of patients and prioritizes care for individuals who arrive at the FQHC with dental needs. An arrangement with the Roanoke-Chowan Foundation allows the center to provide complex procedures on a sliding fee scale for uninsured patients.

Kim calls the impact of this care “miraculous.” One patient saw her diabetes improve after receiving dentures that allowed her to get off a soft diet of applesauce and sweet potatoes. Another patient found a job after his missing front teeth were replaced. A third was able to sleep again after being treated for the condition causing her dental pain, Kim told me. “To literally have this clinic right here in Ahoskie, this little rural town in eastern North Carolina, and to be known for it. … People are very proud of that fact and proud of the association with ECU,” she says. “They finally have an option for oral health and (this is not too strong a word) hope that there’s someone looking out for their oral health needs.”

There’s no question in Kim’s mind that by providing one-stop shopping for medical and dental care at Ahoskie, ECU SoDM has improved the lives of some of the health center’s most vulnerable patients. The school’s statewide numbers are also impressive. Since that first CSLC opened in 2012, Greg told me, ECU SoDM students, residents and faculty have treated 49,720 patients at the Greenville campus clinic and the eight CSLCs distributed throughout the state. More than 15,000 of those patients were enrolled in Medicaid.

These numbers are welcome news in a state with one of the lowest dentist-to-population ratios, roughly five per 10,000. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, North Carolina has roughly 140 Health Professional Short Areas when it comes to dental health. So why are so few dentists practicing in rural parts of the state?

When I asked Nicole if she had thought about opening her own practice in the area, she expressed doubts about her ability to make that happen. She says it’s difficult to find front-desk staff, dental assistants or a business manager. Additionally, because so few people have private insurance, it can be challenging to develop an adequate patient base. Instead, she has set her sights on one day being the Ahoskie CSLC clinic director—a goal with which no one at her alma mater will argue.

Despite the obstacles, rural practice can be financially viable. “A lot of people look at the Medicaid fee scale and say, no way can I take part in that,” Maggie observes, but that reaction is too hasty, she tells students. “You can serve Medicaid patients and still earn enough to pay off your loans, send your kids to college, buy a home, etc., but you need a well-designed vision and a practice plan.”

To equip students with the tools they need to care for underserved patients in a sustainable way, the ECU SoDM curriculum explores public policy, financial barriers to care and the sociology of poverty. The school has also hired Hillary Harrell, who serves as Student Financial Support Manager. She works with students to help them figure out how they will pay for dental school, teaches in the practice management curriculum, and assists students, residents and graduates with identifying practice opportunities that are aligned with ECU’s mission. Her support ranges from critiquing business plans to helping students arrange for loan repayment to coaching students on salary negotiation. With a number of first-generation college students among ECU SoDM’s graduates, many without a family member to guide them, Maggie says, Ms. Harrell can be a lifeline.

So, what’s next for Ahoskie? According to Kim, the CSLC could use several more dentists just to meet the routine needs of the patients at the FQHC. That may happen one day, but Greg plans to proceed cautiously.

“We have room for expansion within the facilities, but we’re trying to make the center sustainable—not just economically but also educationally. We’re not just a safety net clinic. Students need to do crowns, bridges, root canals, partials and not just provide basic care.” Greg echoes Nicole’s concerns when he adds, “In rural areas, it’s hard to recruit a mix of patients who can afford more complex treatments, and Medicaid doesn’t cover much.”

It has been clear for years that Greg and his colleagues are contributing to the transformation of dental education. Six years into ECU’s experiment, it seems irrefutable that the CSLCs are achieving their early goals and having wider impacts. By bringing dental care to rural populations, ECU SoDM students, residents, faculty and graduates are not only making a measurable dent in their state’s access-to-care challenges, they are also helping to reinvigorate communities. When CSLC practitioners eliminate pain and restore smiles, they participate in a process that can lead to employment and improved economic circumstances. Kim also reports that the presence of young dentists drawn from the community is inspiring a new generation to consider pursuing dental careers.

These are some of the good things that happen when you recruit students who are committed to rural practice and prepare them to be dentists in rural practice environments. I look forward to hearing more good news as the program grows.

Dr. Richard ValachovicIn this month’s letter, Dr. Rick Valachovic talks with two educators at Louisiana State University Health New Orleans School of Dentistry about their recipe for interprofessional education.

At the Louisiana State University Health New Orleans School of Dentistry (LSUSD), interprofessional education (IPE) has become an integral part of the culture, growing from the personal experiences and commitment of its faculty members.

LSUSD’s focus on IPE came about in large part thanks to an individual many of you know: ADEA Past President (2010–11) Sandra Andrieu, Ph.D., Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Director, Program in Advanced Dental Education at LSUSD. Sandra awoke to the urgency of preparing health professionals to provide collaborative care through her husband’s experiences with Parkinsonism and Lewy body dementia. Along with ADEA Senior Scholar in Residence Leo Rouse, D.D.S., FACD, she represented ADEA on the Interprofessional Education Collaborative (IPEC) expert panel that drafted Core Competencies for Interprofessional Collaborative Practice. And thanks in large part to Sandra’s zeal, ADEA members received a thorough introduction to IPE at the 2011 ADEA Annual Session & Exhibition in San Diego.

Following her success in San Diego, Sandra established a grassroots working group at LSU, and in 2012, university administrators supported the effort by appointing a formal IPE Committee. The group set an initial goal: to give each student at least one IPE experience while enrolled at LSU. This decision prompted the creation of an elective course that drew strong attendance from students across all LSU Health Sciences Center (LSUHSC) schools. From there, individual programs began developing IPE experiences with each other, an effort that continues to grow.

Then in 2013, LSU seized on the opportunity provided by its upcoming health sciences center accreditation to develop an IPE infrastructure able to catapult their efforts to the next level. Faculty endorsed a Quality Enhancement Plan that involved creating a Center for Interprofessional Education and Collaborative Practice, hiring a director, Tina Gunaldo, Ph.D., D.P.T., M.H.S., and naming Center liaisons from each of the six LSUHSC schools—steps that have dramatically increased IPE activity at other universities.

“We realized that we were siloing IPE, which is exactly what we didn’t want to do,” Sandra reflected. “IPE can’t be something separate; it needs to be integrated into the culture and the curriculum. We wanted it to become part of the fabric of education at the Health Sciences Center.”

Sandra and her colleagues could not have achieved what they did without the full backing of LSUSD’s Dean, Henry Gremillion, D.D.S., MAGD, who started his deanship in 2008 and currently serves as ADEA’s Board Director for Deans. Henry has recognized the importance of interprofessional collaboration since graduating from LSUSD in 1977. At the start of his career, he was that rare solo practitioner who was not isolated. Far from it.

In his small community, Henry set up shop next door to the town physician and across the street from the town pharmacist. He remembers the three of them being in and out of each other’s workplaces on an almost daily basis, providing de facto coordinated care for the town’s 2,000 residents. As a result, Henry was already acculturated to collaborative practice when he started a residency in orofacial pain at the University of Florida. The program brought dentists together with neurologists, neurosurgeons, psychologists, physical therapists, and anesthesiologists, as well as ear, nose and throat specialists, deepening his understanding of interprofessional practice.

“My entire practice life has pretty much been spent in an interprofessional collaborative care environment,” Henry told me, “so when I arrived at LSU School of Dentistry as Dean, I was ecstatic about coming back to my alma mater and being a part of IPE’s growth and expansion.”

By 2016, LSU’s IPE initiatives had far exceeded the university’s initial IPE goals, but Dr. Gunaldo, Sandra and the other liaisons weren’t satisfied. In their view, each of the school’s achievements was isolated, and therefore vulnerable to shifts in priorities that might arise in the future.

That insight was the inspiration for Team Up, a new two-year longitudinal course now required of all first- and second-year LSUHSC students. On the first Monday of every month, they come together in 65 teams of 11 students each to learn “from, by and with each other” with the help of a faculty facilitator. The teams also develop their observational skills through a Health Partner program that has teams connect with a member of the community to learn about that person’s health care goals, access to resources and experience of receiving care. In the second year, Team Up sessions will analyze a wide range of clinical cases.

“I think all of us were a bit naïve and thought what we were doing before Team Up was great,” Sandra told me, “but experience offers wisdom, and we now know that to make IPE sustainable and meaningful, students have to see it reflected across all programs every day. Now IPE is no longer an appendage to the curriculum. It’s embedded in established courses and threaded throughout the curriculum.”

IPE has touched a chord with the more than 185 LSUHSC faculty who volunteer to facilitate Team Up on Monday nights. They also meet as a group to prepare ahead of time, a process the faculty has found extremely rewarding.

“What we learn from each other is amazing,” Sandra says. “We see things from different perspectives, so our knowledge has grown by leaps and bounds.”

Students have also been swept up in LSU’s IPE spirit. The InterProfessional Student Alliance (IPSA) is thriving. In addition to hosting workshops, members of the volunteer organization engage in interprofessional projects ranging from research on “hotspotting” and patient engagement to teaching cooking and nutrition to hungry families.

Three years ago, IPE at LSU took on a clinical dimension as well with the construction of an urgent-care-type clinic staffed by nurse practitioners on the school of dentistry grounds. It’s a place where dental, dental hygiene and nursing students, along with dental practice residents, gain clinical exposure to an interprofessional environment and learn about patients’ general health conditions, as well as their immediate dental needs.

“The feedback I’m getting from students is that they really love it,” Henry told me. “The day we had our ribbon-cutting,” Henry recalls, “a patient came in from 40 miles away because he required extractions. Well, the team found out during that visit that he also had hypertension and diabetes—which he did not know he had. I was visiting with him that day, and he was actually in tears because he felt like it was the first time he had someone care about him as a whole person and not just look at the individual parts.”

Despite living far away, the patient returned to the clinic for follow-up care and education about his chronic conditions, a pattern Henry would like to see repeated in other interprofessional clinics throughout the state.

Indeed, LSUSD is developing another ambitious program—this one focused on enhancing care for the state’s rural population. The school just accepted its first applicant to the Rural Dental Scholars Track, which will allow the student to work at a Federally Qualified Health Center in northern Louisiana to experience on a daily basis the value of practicing with other health professionals.

I asked Henry and Sandra to give me LSU’s recipe for IPE success. They listed several familiar ingredients:

  • A core group of committed faculty.
  • Support from senior administrators.
  • Investment in an IPE center.
  • Hiring a center director dedicated to advancing IPE.

They also highlighted the momentum generated by the accreditation process and the pivotal decision to embed IPE in the curriculum through Team Up. Then, reflecting on the history of IPE’s development at LSU, Sandra revealed what struck me as its “secret ingredient.”

“The discussions that brought IPE to light were personal,” she told me. “When we first got together, we talked about our own struggles and our family members’ struggles with health care. Those experiences provided the passion and it’s never waned,” she emphasized. “If someone came and told us, you have to teach IPE, it would never have gained the traction that it has. You have to believe in your gut that this is a need.”

Clearly, she and Henry have a fire in the belly when it comes to preparing students to communicate interprofessionally and provide collaborative care. They and their colleagues are not engaged in IPE just because they see it as an abstract good. They’ve seen people they care about—whether family or strangers—suffering needlessly because of poor communication and uncoordinated care. They don’t want that to happen to anyone else.

Of Note 

The ADEA Commission on Change and Innovation in Dental Education 2.0 (ADEA CCI 2.0) is addressing some of the same concerns Sandra and Henry raise by exploring person-centered care. If you haven’t read ADEA Chief Learning Officer Anthony Palatta’s recent Journal of Dental Education Guest Editorial or the latest ADEA CCI 2.0 white paper, I encourage you to do so. You will also find related commentary from an interprofessional group of educators in the latest ADEA CCI Liaison Ledger.

Dr. Richard ValachovicIn this month’s letter, Dr. Rick Valachovic explores how one dental school and one state are framing a response to the opioid epidemic that keeps dental pain mitigation in sight.

Dental pain is real, and most of us were taught that the most effective way to alleviate severe pain was with opioid painkillers. As a result, most dentists prescribe them—with benefits but also unintended consequences for our patients. Today, the majority of young people aged 12–18 who become addicted to painkillers were first prescribed them by a dentist. Given that each year 3.5 million people, most of them young, have their third molars extracted, our role as significant opioid prescribers should come as no surprise. But the bottom line is this: Despite our best intentions, dentists have contributed to what has now become an epidemic, and we need to take an active part in resolving it.
Many of us in academic dentistry are doing just that. ADEA co-hosted a summit on the opioid epidemic with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in August. The meeting convened representatives of 17 southern and mid-Atlantic dental schools to learn about the scope of the problem and share strategies that academic dental institutions can use to prevent prescription drug misuse and addiction. These strategies include:

  • Screening patients to identify their risk for substance misuse.
  • Educating faculty and students about pain management, addiction and prescribing practices
  • Consulting prescription monitoring programs (PMPs) to identify patients who may be “doctor shopping.”
  • Developing relationships with addiction treatment providers to facilitate referrals.

Most of the dental schools present at the summit had already taken concrete steps in these directions, and the three Boston-based dental schools—Boston University Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine (GSDM), Harvard School of Dental Medicine (HSDM) and Tufts University School of Dental Medicine (TUSDM)—had gone even further, engaging in a state-sponsored effort to create dental education core competencies for the prevention and management of prescription drug misuse.
(To learn what’s happening in other states, see the 2017 ADEA Summary of State Legislation and Regulations Addressing Prescription Drug and Opioid Abuse on the ADEA Advocacy and Government Relations key state issues webpage.)

Ronald Kulich, Ph.D., of the Craniofacial Pain and Headache Center at TUSDM, co-chaired the competency-creation effort and spoke at the summit. He explained that in 2015, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker asked the state’s medical schools to develop a set of core competencies that would address the opioid epidemic. When these were complete, the dean of the Tufts medical school approached the TUSDM dean, Huw Thomas, B.D.S., M.S., Ph.D., and asked him to sign off on their use by dental schools. Huw asked Ron to weigh in.

“Their fit for dentistry was, at best, not perfect,” Ron told me. “Dentists deal with acute pain. We wanted to make sure that pain was in the forefront.”

TUSDM volunteered to form a new working group, which Ron co-chaired with Huw and David Keith, D.M.D., B.D.S., Professor of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at HSDM. The Governor’s Dental Education Working Group on Prescription Drug Misuse developed an independent set of dental core competencies, which have now been adopted by the three Massachusetts dental schools and can serve as a guide to dental educators elsewhere in the country.

This policy initiative was one of several in the state, which has been hard-hit by the opioid epidemic. Massachusetts has also established a PMP that collects dispensing information on controlled substances to help prescribers deter drug diversion—the practice of making prescription drugs available to another person for illicit use—and assess whether their patients might be at risk for drug abuse.

I wanted to discuss these activities further with Ron and find out what steps TUSDM is currently taking to prepare graduates to prescribe appropriately. Ron arranged for me to speak with two of his TUSDM colleagues as well: William Jackson, Psy.D., Assistant Professor and Co-Director of the Interprofessional Facial Pain and Headache Rounds, and Ellen Patterson, M.A., M.D., Assistant Professor and Director of Interprofessional Education. Ellen is taking the lead on translating the core competencies into the predoctoral curriculum.

Content related to prescribing and addiction has already been woven into the first and second years:

  • Starting with Introduction to the Dental Patient courses in years 1 and 2, students learn to identify risk factors for addiction and to use screening tools. (Tufts uses the NIDA Quick Screen developed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. A SAMHSA-developed tool, SBIRT, which covers screening, brief intervention and referral to treatment, is also available and has been integrated in the curriculum at GSDM.)
  • Students and faculty also are invited to take part in weekly Interprofessional Facial Pain and Headache Rounds, during which faculty and regional experts present on pain and addiction. (Other health professionals are welcome to attend. Contact Ron if you’re interested.)
  • Tufts hosts a yearly educational program where students hear from law enforcement about the diversion of prescription drugs for nonprescription uses. Students “rub shoulders” with police and learn that they are “not the bad guys,” Ron says, and the officers in attendance gain a better understanding of the complex decision-making challenges prescribers face.

Tufts also prepares students to routinely use the Massachusetts PMP in their practice. “Dental students are not familiar with the vast array of medications catalogued in the PMP,” Ellen told me, “and the electronic health records used by most dental schools are not typically set up to flag medications that carry risks of addiction.”
Ron agrees that dental records are not well designed for that type of intervention, and they reveal other challenges as well. “We mined about six years of dental records looking at opioid use and other things,” he told me. “Ibuprofen was spelled 12 different ways, and that’s just the ‘tip of the iceberg.’ So we have work do to in terms of how prescription drug monitoring is adopted by the field in general.”

The next step will be to build prescribing education into the clinical portion of the curriculum so students understand that discussing a patient’s risk for addiction is part of their job.

“Risk assessment for substance use is about more than identifying which medications patients have been prescribed,” William told me. “It’s also about assessing behavior. How are patients using those medications? Are they engaged in risky behaviors?”

“This broader risk assessment is not yet standard practice in dentistry,” Ellen added. “To achieve that will require a culture shift.”

The Tufts team is creating video vignettes to help students and faculty become more comfortable with discussing medication use with patients. “These are not difficult or lengthy conversations. They are just awkward conversations,” Ellen said, “but once you’ve done it a few times, it becomes second nature.”

Ellen is a physician and rightly observes that during their training, medical students watch both residents and attending physicians conducting patient assessments over and over again. Dental students rarely get that experience. She hopes the videos will provide a similar type of exposure so that dental students become comfortable with the process.

Ellen plans to eventually train a cadre of standardized patients with whom students can practice these interactions. Simulating patient assessments will help students appreciate the human complexity of treating dental pain in a way that mitigates risk for their patients. As William pointed out, “Pain is not just a physical sensation. There are a lot of psychological aspects to the pain experience.”

Ron and Ellen agreed. “When we’re asked to assess pain,” Ellen observed, “we immediately think about the intensity of the pain on a scale. But really, what we need to be measuring is function. The patient’s ability to function is a much better measure of whether or not their treatment is successful.”

Functional assessment represents a significant departure from the “fifth vital sign” view of pain that was introduced by the American Pain Society in 1996 and disseminated by The Joint Commission, which accredits hospitals. Sadly, as Ron points out, this back and forth in our relationship with pain is nothing new.

“Back in the 1800s, we were going through the same process in terms of concern about opioid use and conflict of interest with physicians who were prescribing various pain treatments. Fears associated with opioids, overprescribing and concerns over non–evidence-based medicine has been happening in cycles for the last 200 years.”

Fortunately, there are also periods of progress, but these require the type of broad-based approach that Massachusetts is championing and that Tufts and some others are putting into practice.

William wants dental schools to understand that revising curricula is not sufficient on its own. Policy work at the state level is vital to solving the problem, and so is institutional assessment. “We need to ask, How are opioids being prescribed, and what type of pain medications are being used within the dental school?”

Tufts is monitoring its own prescribing practices and has found that faculty now write 20 prescriptions per 1,000 visits as compared to 30 prescriptions five or six years ago. Perhaps most notably, the endodontic department, which adopted a policy of prescribing over-the-counter medications first, now has an exceptionally low opioid prescribing rate.

The school has also begun collecting data on use of the state’s PMP through the efforts of a third-year dental student, Jessaca York, and her supervisor, Bhavik Desai, D.M.D., Ph.D. “They found that there were 15,000 visits over three years with almost no documentation of PMP results,” Ron told me. Now that Tufts has this baseline data, Ron and his colleagues will watch to see how things change. They’ll also be assessing their students in about 18 months to see whether they have acquired the desired pain-management and risk-prevention skills.

So, the call to action is clear: We must act on multiple levels to reduce patients’ risk for addiction. We need government policies and resources that support better prescribing, institutional accountability for prescribing practices and curricula that prepare the next generation to take a holistic approach to treating pain.

Tufts may be unique in its three-pronged approach to addressing the opioid crisis, but it is not alone. Harvard’s and Boston University’s dental schools are also trailblazers, and many other ADEA member institutions include individuals who are taking courageous steps to change prescribing practices within their establishments.

Allied dental programs also have a vital role to play in this effort. Ron, Ellen and William pointed out that patients may spend most of their dental visit talking with dental hygienists or other allied personnel.

“Dental hygienists have a very preventive focus,” Ellen said. “We think they’re an underutilized resource in addressing this issue. Even though they don’t typically prescribe opioids, they are very much part of the solution.”