Dentistry Adds New Dimension to Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development Program

Dec 5, 2011, 2:17 PM, Posted by

By Nina Ardery, Deputy Director, Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development Program

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development Program has long been working to increase the number of medical school faculty from historically disadvantaged backgrounds who are committed to advancing the understanding and elimination of health disparities and serving as role models for students and faculty of similar background. In 2012 the program will expand its scope to include those clinician scientists who work in dental medicine.

This is a natural extension of the program. Oral health is integral to overall health. New research is pointing to associations between chronic oral infections and heart and lung diseases, stroke, and low-birth-weight, premature births, according to the Surgeon General’s report “Oral Health in America,” and associations between periodontal disease and diabetes have long been noted.

The broadened meaning of oral health parallels the broadened meaning of health. In 1948 the World Health Organization expanded the definition of health to mean “a complete state of physical, mental, and social well-being, and not just the absence of infirmity.” It follows that oral health must also include well-being. Just as we now understand that nature and nurture are inextricably linked, and mind and body are both expressions of our human biology, so, too, we must recognize that oral health and general health are inseparable. We ignore signs and symptoms of oral disease and dysfunction to our detriment.

The wider meanings of oral and health in no way diminish the relevance and importance of the two leading dental diseases, caries and the periodontal diseases. They remain common and widespread, affecting nearly everyone at some point in the life span. Nearly one in four adults between the ages of 20 and 64 have untreated tooth decay, and rates are higher among Black and Hispanic adults, younger adults, and those with lower incomes and less education. There are probably more disparities in oral health care in the United States than in overall health care.

I think we will start to see more integration of medicine and dentistry at the community level, in clinical practice and in research as providers integrate general and oral health, so this is a good time for us at the Harold Amos program to embrace a wider definition of medicine.

The expansion into dental medicine will also enrich our program. Our current Scholars will have the opportunity to learn about areas of research and health care that they probably don’t have much experience with, and the new Scholars from dentistry will have access to a rich network of scientists. The questions that are being asked might be different, but the methods and approaches will be similar.

Our Scholars note that one of the unexpected advantages of the program is that they are exposed to researchers from specialties very unlike their own. They all benefit from the different viewpoints brought to discussions of research projects. Interacting with those with yet another perspective, and who arrived at their research careers via entirely different educational paths, can only add further depth and breadth to the discussions.

My hopes haven’t changed; we want to continue to get the word out to eligible potential applicants that this opportunity exists for a mentored research training experience with the additional benefit of a built-in network of experienced scientists. We just need to find a way to publicize the program in dental schools, where we don’t have the same 30 years of experience and history as in medical schools.

I hope that by encouraging those from historically disadvantaged backgrounds to consider or remain in an academic career, we will be encouraging role models who will in turn influence generations of students to consider careers in medicine and dentistry. The expansion of the program underlines the importance of oral health. I think that the integration of oral health care and traditional medical care will both benefit.

Read more about the Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development Program expansion into dentistry here.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.