The separation of dental and medical health is puzzling. But the mouth and body are more closely related than most people think. Poor oral health, after all, goes beyond a tooth problem. Moreover, gum and mouth inflammations set the stage for diabetes, high blood pressure, and other chronic conditions.
This goes to show that the two fields intertwine, and acknowledging that they go hand-in-hand could improve patient health, especially in general dental offices.
An Early Division Between the Two Fields
Dentistry and medicine haven’t always been separate entities. The Greek scholar Hippocrates, also the Father of Medicine, wrote about medicine. His scrolls tackle subjects, such as tooth decay, a predecessor to fractures, wounds, and gum disease.
Even physicians like Pierre Fauchard and John Hunter approached dentistry through medicine, biology, and physiology.
But since the establishment of the first dental school in the US in 1840, professors regarded medicine and dentistry as separate professions. That spawned an establishment of various medical and dental schools that evolved in isolation.
At present, there are 152 accredited medical schools and 66 medical schools in America. These schools are right across from each other, but they have little in common. So far, there have been almost no attempts in cross-curricular integration.
The Mouth as a Window to Overall Health
The mouth provides a wide-open view into the rest of the body. And that comes with a source of risk, as well.
Healthcare professionals share that gum infections are related to premature birth, diabetes weakens the body’s resistance to infections, and medications that cause dry mouth could potentially lead to tooth decay.
But even though the evidence that these conditions co-relate with each other are compelling, dentists and physicians choose to confine themselves to their respective fields. Diabetes, for instance, falls under a physician’s domain, while gum infections necessitate patients to visit their dentist alone.
The sad part: it is up to the patient to follow-up treatment, which may sometimes lead to untreated and undiagnosed conditions.
From a more practical point of view, patients with dental problems only choose to see a medical doctor (or vice versa) because of cost, convenience, and the lack of access to transportation.
Integrating Medical and Dental Care
Breaking the dental and medical divide lies in seeing dental visits as medical appointments, and medical visits as dental appointments, as well. The cross-integration of medicine and dentistry is possible through the following:
- A new mindset – Integrating the two practices means redefining the responsibilities of physicians and dentists.
- Co-professional collaboration – The future holds the prospect of physicians and dentists working alongside each other, sharing records and developing more targeted treatments.
- Better payment models – Those behind Medicare and Medicaid will need to rethink their payment models and make it possible for patients to pay for medicine and dentistry together.
- Enhanced outcomes measurement – Physicians and dentists must work together to come up with a universal measurement for health outcomes.
Medical and dental doctors should venture beyond their comfort zone and be more proactive in merging their professions. After all, deeper education in both fields could spell the difference between a life lost and a life saved.