Nurse Practitioners Can Play a Greater Role in Oral Healthcare

Dentistry Today


Nurse practitioners (NPs) may be the first healthcare workers to evaluate patients’ oral health or diagnose oral disease, even before the patients’ dentists, reports the Center for Integration of Primary Care and Oral Health (CIPCOH), which conducted a survey of NP training programs. 

The survey focused on pediatric, family, and adult-gerontology primary care programs to assess how well oral health was integrated into the educational curricula. Most respondents indicated high levels of satisfaction with the graduates’ level of oral health training and competence, with 86% of responding programs integrating oral health into their curricula.

“Our study findings hold promise for addressing the gap in access to oral healthcare and eliminating oral health disparities in the United States,” said coauthor Maria Dolce, PhD, RN, associate professor at the Stony Brook University School of Nursing

“The majority of licensed nurse practitioners are primary care providers and comprise a significant proportion of the primary care workforce. Nurse practitioners are prepared to broaden access to oral healthcare and decrease health disparities, particularly for vulnerable and underserved populations,” said Dolce. 

Since 2000, when the Surgeon General called for increased awareness of the importance of oral health to overall health, efforts to bring oral health into primary care training have been steadily gaining ground, CIPCOH says. 

“Having nurse practitioners invested in the role oral health plays in overall health is vital,” said coauthor and lead principal investigator Christine Riedy, MA, PhD, chair and Delta Dental of Massachusetts Associate Professor of Oral Health Policy and Epidemiology at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine (HSDM).

“They are often embedded in places like schools, nursing homes, and health centers where oral health providers may not be. That’s why they are such powerful allies in identifying oral health conditions and recognizing inequities in access to dental care,” said Riedy.

The study cites the New York University Rory Meyers College of Nursing and the Northeastern University School of Nursing as academic institutions as leaders in training and practice, as both have advanced interprofessional education stressing the oral-systemic health connection.

Northeastern and HSDM also have tested a unique, interprofessional collaborative practice model, the Nurse Practitioner and Dentist Model for Primary Care (NPD Model), that brought nursing and dental students together in a clinical setting to improve health for older adult patients living with chronic health conditions. 

“The nurse practitioner-dentist model enabled dental students to see firsthand how a nurse practitioner can interface with patients and dental providers seamlessly integrating care and contributing to the patient’s overall healthcare,” said co-principal investigator of the NPD Model John D. Da Silva, DMD, MPH, PD, vice dean at HSDM. 

More work is necessary to advance these efforts despite progress, note the researchers, whose recommendations to continue to cultivate NP faculty champions as well as promote oral health education and competency in NP curricula. 

“A significant contribution has been made by initiatives such as the Oral Health Nursing Education and Practice Program (OHNEP) to improving population health by the nursing profession and primary care nurse practitioners as they integrate oral health as an essential component of overall health in clinical education and practice settings,” said coauthor Judith Haber, PhD, Ursula Springer Leadership Professor in Nursing at NYU and executive director of OHNEP. 

The study, “Integrating Oral Health Curricula into Nurse Practitioner Graduate Programs: Results of a US Survey,” was published by the Journal of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners.

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