The Delta Dental of Virginia Foundation has awarded $1 million to the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine to create an endowment for a comprehensive oral health curriculum, one of the nation’s first for a medical school.

“Oral health is a critical part of an individual’s overall health,” said Dr. Cynda Johnson, dean of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. “Untreated oral diseases can contribute to an increased risk for serious medical conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, and poor oral health in pregnant women has been associated with premature births and low birth weight. Yet millions of Americans don’t receive the dental care they need. The Delta Dental of Virginia Oral Health Teaching Endowment is intended to help fill that gap.”

The million-dollar award, payable over four years, will allow the School of Medicine to weave oral health training throughout its curriculum. The funds will also be used to support clinical rotations, service learning projects, research scholarships, and the development and implementation of standardized patient cases.

“One major reason we designed this curriculum was our concern about the impact of delayed diagnoses on oral cancer survival rates,” said Dr. Charles “Bud” Conklin, an associate professor in the Department of Surgery at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and section chief for dentistry at Carilion Clinic. “The elderly, who have the highest risk for oral cancer, are four times more likely to visit a physician than a dentist in a given year, so it becomes paramount that physicians be able to provide them with the appropriate exam. Medical schools are the perfect training ground.”

Johnson believes the program will serve as a powerful teaching model for medical schools across the nation. “With this program we hope not just to inspire other medical schools to integrate oral health into their curricula,” she said, “but we also hope to share the standardized patient cases that we’ll be developing as teaching tools.”

The program represents a significant expansion of the school’s pilot oral health curriculum, which an earlier Delta Dental gift had enabled. The curriculum includes clinical training as well as lectures on general oral health, oral cancer, common pathologies, and oral manifestations of systemic disease. The earlier gift also established an annual public lectureship to highlight integral links between oral health and overall health.

The school’s 2013 Delta Dental of Virginia Oral Health Lecture will take place next week, on Jan. 9, at 6:30 p.m. at the medical school, located at 2 Riverside Circle in Roanoke. Dr. Peter Lockhart, chair of oral medicine and director of the Institute for Oral Medicine at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, N.C., will present the lecture, “Controversies Concerning Antibiotic Prophylaxis: An Interface of Medicine and Dentistry.”

The overall curriculum was developed through a collaboration among Johnson, Conklin, and Dr. George A. Levicki, president of the board of directors of Delta Dental of Virginia Foundation.

“We hope that Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine students will use their oral health education to promote the power of healthy smiles and healthy bodies for a healthier life,” said Levicki. “By incorporating the growing body of evidence for the vital connections between oral health and overall health, this new curriculum reflects what I hope will become the future of how medical schools train doctors.”

“One of our faculty members, a family practice physician, captured the value of this model best when she said that it had led her to change the way she performs her own patient exams,” said Johnson. “We hope this innovative program will continue to inspire physicians to perform oral exams and ultimately to improve health outcomes for patients everywhere.”

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