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Combining Medical and Dental Education

January 2, 2007

At some point in the near future, you may flop down in the dentist chair for a routine cleaning and also get examined for your heart condition or be asked about your diabetes. This latest innovation in medicine is being launched by Case Western Reserve University, which plans to graduate students with dual medical and dental degrees. The benefit to patients is clear, partly because people see their dentists more regularly than physicians, but also because research is finding that oral health is important to overall fitness.

“The Case program is very innovative and there’s really nothing out there like it,” said Richard Valachovic, executive director of the American Dental Education Association.

The program will offer dental students the chance to also pursue a medical degree and is patterned after the sort of training that oral surgeons typically undertake during a medical residency following dental school.  After completing the five-year program, graduates will be eligible for dental licensure and will also qualify for medical licensure after residency.

Jerold Goldberg, dean of the Case dental school, said that the program will reinforce the strong links between oral and physical health. “It has been thought that the mouth was independent from the rest of the body, but we now know that that is not true,” added Valachovic.

In recent years, these links have become more apparent. For instance, research has found a correlation between cardiovascular disease and bacteria that are carried in the mouth. It is thought that the bacteria enter the bloodstream and lead to inflammation. Scientists have also noted that women with gum disease have low birth weight infants, and diabetes has also been correlated with poor oral health. Researchers are not certain how gum disease is linked to these two conditions but believe that his has something to do with inflammation.

Case expects to pick around five students each year to enter the program, and Goldberg predicts that as more of these graduates enter the health care, the value of this type of professional will become more accepted.

“There is the idea of having more primary care available in the dentist’s office,” said Valachovic. “This program reflects a lot of those changes that are occurring in dentistry.”

 

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