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University of Kentucky College of Dentistry Forges Partnership to Spread Knowledge of Oral Health

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Given the demands of modern medical practice, it's not surprising that oral health gets short shrift or no attention at all in most medical schools. But in eastern Kentucky, an interprofessional collaboration between the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry (UKCD) and Pikeville College School of Osteopathic Medicine (PCSOM) provides a model for remedying this oversight.

PCSOM, a private educational institution in eastern Kentucky coal country, strives to produce graduates committed to serving the healthcare needs of Appalachia and other rural regions. In 2000, PCSOM contacted UKCD for assistance in designing an oral health curriculum block for PCSOM students. The result is an intensive, 16-hour program in which students learn the relationship between oral and systemic disease, differentiate between the clinical appearance of normal oral anatomy and common oral diseases, evaluate general oral health status, and study the primary methods of oral disease prevention.

Dr. Judy Skelton, Associate Professor in the Division of Dental Public Health, led the curriculum development effort and conducted a study to evaluate the program's impact on its first graduating class (see article). Students showed significant improvement in their knowledge of oral health, especially in the areas of oral cancer, pediatric oral health, oral anatomy, dental caries, and periodontal disease.

According to Dr. Robert Kovarik, Associate Professor in the Division of Dental Public Health, who co-directs the program with Skelton, eastern Kentucky residents with poor oral health are much more likely to see a physician than a dentist, so "doctors need to be able to recognize oral disease, and be aware of how oral diseases influence systemic health in their patients."

Many adults do not have private dental insurance and many dentists do not treat patients with only Medicaid, so poorer Kentucky residents rarely have access to oral health care unless their pain becomes unbearable. "Historically, people don't expect to keep their teeth," says Dr. Skelton. "That's the culture. UK and PCSOM are partnering to change that."

Most rural clinics in Kentucky are small and integrated, so an ability to work across the health professions is critical to providing quality care. Recognizing this, the University of Kentucky (UK) has made interprofessionalism a major focus of its strategic plan. There is already some collaboration between the medical, dental, and other health professions schools (see Faculty Spotlight). Faculty from every school serve on a university working group related to interprofessionalism, and an ambitious building program designed to facilitate interprofessional health education is expected to transform the campus in the next decade.

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