Enhancing Education and Wellness through Oral Health Integration

By Brian Dickens, DO

I recently participated in the collaborative leadership program SYNC™ with a team of fellow colleagues from the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine (VCOM), Kay Lucas, RN, MEd, EDS, and Watson Edwards, BSN, and Lawrence Kyle, DDS, a local dentist in Blacksburg, with scholarship support from the Virginia Oral Health Coalition.  We chose to join the SYNC™ program to develop a multidisciplinary approach to improve oral health medical education, community education and, ultimately, care within communities, through interactive community outreach. 

Prior to SYNC™, we had discussed the need to further integrate oral health into VCOM’s curriculum and outreach efforts, but we did not have a specific plan of action.  We decided to begin by improving medical student education to ensure the students were equipped to provide basic oral healthcare.  Because oral health is so integrally related to overall health, we were challenged to add new oral health information in a way that avoided redundancy and was cohesive with existing education.  Ultimately, we choose a more integrated lecture experience and a stronger oral health emphasis at early clinical experiences and community health fairs.  We felt the enhanced oral health focus would help lay the foundation for a more proactive community approach to intervention and, more importantly, prevention of oral disease.  

In planning community outreach efforts for the fall, we chose to focus on oral health’s important role in overall health, based on our experiences in education and public service in underserved areas.  Our students have a passion for their community and are a driving force, so our medical students will be tasked with providing basic oral health education and treatment at local community health fairs.  Using students at the health fairs will provide oral health education to individuals who may otherwise have little to no access, and give the students earlier clinical training experience. 

Historically, we frequently have members of the community arrive to the health fairs carrying a soda, with the corresponding dental caries.  As the health consequences are far-reaching, this will prompt many conversations on body mass index, hypertension, oral health, and healthy lifestyle habits; we will also offer health fair attendees the opportunity to check their body mass index, blood pressure and blood sugar.  Similar to curriculum integration, it is challenging to find the most efficient way to incorporate oral health information.  There are so many important topics for the public, you have to find a balance between having enough while avoiding information overload.

I feel our team made great strides to expand the community’s oral health knowledge and prepare future medical providers to integrate oral health into primary care, and we will continuously look for more opportunities to improve education and outreach.  For other teams looking to do similar integration work, I suggest getting to know your audience through open dialogue and not being afraid to try a new approach.  Within our team, we were surprised to realize how much applicable oral health information we learned just from interprofessional collaboration.


If you are interested in learning more about integrating oral health and primary care, check out the Oral Health Integration Toolkit on the VaOHC website.  SYNC™ is a collaborative leadership program offered by the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, the Virginia Nurses Association and the Medical Society of Virginia Foundation, with support from Community Health Solutions. 

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