Grant to aid UI dental research

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By Rikki Laser

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and research grants usually bring images of tall microscopes and black lab benches, but three scientists at the University of Iowa are doing something different.

Susan McKernan, an assistant professor in the Department of Preventive and Community Dentistry, is leading a project on how best to integrate oral health and primary care.

She and her team, which includes Visiting Assistant Professor of dentistry Julie Reynolds and Professor of dentistry Ray Kuthy, received the CDC-funded $175,000 grant on Oct. 1. They conduct their research in and with the UI Public Policy Center.

The team plans to find the best ways to help combine dentistry and primary health care. McKernan said, for example, that a project in Iowa “trained dental providers to screen patients for high blood pressure and tobacco use.”

Supporters say there is a financial benefit to combining the different cares.

“There was a study done by the American Dental Association that looked at money that could be saved by having dentists involved with high blood pressure screenings, hypertension screenings, diabetes, [and more],” said Peter Damiano, the director of the Public Policy Center and a professor in the College of Dentistry. “Hundreds of millions of dollars could be saved if dentists were to screen and to refer back to people in primary care when patients are detected with these things.”

This project specifically will look for data regarding public health activities.

“For this project, we will be collecting data about public-health activities in the U.S. that address common risk factors of chronic diseases and oral diseases,” McKernan said in an email to The Daily Iowan. “The most common chronic diseases in the U.S. — including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer — share risk factors with oral diseases.”

For example, she wrote, eating behaviors that lend themselves to obesity and high blood sugar are also a “major risk factor” for tooth decay; using tobacco and alcohol often contribute to chronic diseases, oral cancer, and periodontal disease.

Because this is a relatively new topic, McKernan said, “there’s not a lot of information about which activities that integrate medical and dental care are the most effective; we’ll be looking to assess these types of activities and identify ones that show the most promise.”

To collect the necessary findings, the team will be looking through what data has been found and speaking with several key people.

“We will be searching existing published literature, conducting key informant interviews from numerous states, and analyzing existing data related to the integration of oral health in public health programs at the federal, state, and local levels, and the integration of dental services in health-care reform activities,” Reynolds said.

They hope the results of the project will help policymakers choose the most effective public health programs to find funding for, she said.

“The final report from this grant will be used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to strategize and prioritize funding opportunities that align with the best practice outlined in our report,” Reynolds said.

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