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How Dental School Curricula is Misunderstood in the Health Profession

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As aspiring dentists, we’re taught to observe and recognize patterns, both in and out of the classroom, lab, and operatory. I’d like to take the time to discuss a phenomenon I have experienced that I feel has concerning indications: There is evidence that the dental school curricula is drastically misunderstood and underestimated in the other healthcare professions.

 

 

On the rare occasion that I step away from recorded lectures and plastic teeth, I enjoy catching up with friends outside of the dental profession, be it at parks, restaurants, or parties. I have quite a few friends in school for other healthcare professions, and it’s nice to share the taciturn understanding of odd schedules, non-existent income, and the normalcy of discussing infinite factoids about the human body (regardless of the occasion!). I most enjoy the conversations that highlight the incessant overlapping of the healthcare professions. Many if not most of these conversations, however, consist of at least one moment where a medical colleague turns to me with a surprised, wide-eyed expression and asks, “Why do dentists even need to know that?”

 

At first, I found this experience laughable and somewhat understandable, but throughout my academic progression I’ve grown slightly impatient. Time and time again, we’ve heard dentists and professors remind us that although we are primarily focused on treating the oral cavity, we are responsible for understanding the systemic health of the entire patient (just as one would expect a dermatologist to understand more than just the skin). As one of my professors aptly put it, “That mouth didn’t walk into your office on its own.”

 

Finding a Common Ground

I admire the intensely thorough curriculum of medical school, pharmacy school, and optometry school, and I understand why most students only learn the bare basics of the oral cavity. I am not asking for my fellow health professionals to know the dimensions of a Class II amalgam preparation and the rationale behind them. It would be appropriate for these healthcare professionals to instead appreciate why we too spend multiple semesters conquering anatomy and neuroscience, and can fully comprehend the unique location and function of each branch of the cranial nerve. For example, patients with congestive heart failure should not be reclined in the dental chair as much as those without the condition to avoid dyspnea. Why shouldn’t we as dental students understand all of the manifestations of this and other cardiac conditions?

 

On the reverse side, I do not expect my colleagues to list all the teeth in the mouth with transverse ridges or cingula, but I do hope that they could differentiate between a posterior and anterior tooth. Pharmacy students and dental students shouldn’t be the only ones to understand which drugs cause xerostomia or gingival enlargement. I expect my fellow students to be fully versed in the symptoms and side effects of diabetes, from increased risk of vision problems to increased risk of bleeding and infection from periodontitis. As there are literally hundreds of systemic conditions (including multiple malignancies) with oral manifestations, I’ve been surprised and disappointed at how confused people outside the dental field respond to our working knowledge of systemic diseases.

 

This is not a negative shot at the education of healthcare professionals at all. We are all lifelong learners, and we undoubtedly are absorbing as much information as we can through our curricula and our individual research. I am sharing my thoughts on this phenomenon in an effort to raise awareness of how we interact with our fellow healthcare professional colleagues. We all joined this field because we love to heal and help patients. By entering the health professions, we made a commitment to improving the wellbeing of our patients through our specialties. All I ask is that we expect more of one another. We owe it to ourselves, our colleagues, and our patients to be prepared to recognize and refer pathology to the appropriate healthcare specialist, even if it’s on the opposite end of our expertise. Yet another professor once told me, “The eye cannot see what the mind does not know.” The fruits of early diagnosis and proactive treatment begin with a commitment to interdisciplinary knowledge and communication, and I hope that as students we can push each other to educate and understand our patients and colleagues as thoroughly as possible.