Student Research Explores LGBT Issues in Oral Healthcare

Dentistry Today

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A third-year student at the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) School of Dentistry is researching the oral health priorities, use of services, and inclusive understanding of oral health providers among the LGBT community, noting that no previous research had explored the viewpoints of LGBT patients about the dental care experience.

“As a member of the LGBT community myself, I know how important it is to feel safe in any kind of medical environment,” said researcher Chase Phillips. “Going in can be stressful for anyone, but then having to worry on top of that if there might be another issue that arises based on your sexuality can make it even more stressful.”

When Phillips was a child, his dentist also was a close family friend. Phillips was struck by how warm and inviting she made her office for patients, creating “safe space,” he said. Years later, those memories were part of what inspired him to pursue dentistry.

“I always looked forward to going to the dentist when I was growing up, and I want to emulate that for others,” he said. “Having experienced what my own dentist office was like and how safe I felt, I wanted to do research looking into how I could help expand that atmosphere to other oral health offices.”

Phillips holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology from the College of William and Mary and Villanova University. He also worked in special education before enrolling in dental school. As an undergraduate and graduate psychology student, he researched access to healthcare among minority communities. He chose the VCU School of Dentistry in part for its strong student research culture.

When Phillips took a dental research elective at VCU, Tegwyn Brickhouse, DDS, PhD, spoke to the class about oral health equity research opportunities. Brickhouse is the chair of the Department of Dental Public Health and Policy and directs both the Oral Health Services Research Core in the Philips Institute for Oral Health Research and the Oral Health in Childhood and Adolescence core in the Institute for Inclusion, Inquiry and Innovation.

Brickhouse’s presentation aligned with Phillips’ interest in health equity, and he worked with her to identify a research path he could pursue.

“I could see that he was really passionate about the LGBT community and he understood that there are some barriers and unanswered questions about providing the LGBT community access to optimal oral health,” said Brickhouse.

Previous dental research on LGBT topics focused on the perspectives of dental students and practitioners, Phillips said, but “very little has been done on the perspective of the LGBT community itself on their own oral healthcare.”

Phillips’ project will combine individual interviews of stakeholders in the LGBT community with a broader survey of the community using themes developed from the interviews, a mixed-method approach that Brickhouse said promises valuable qualitative and quantitative results from the community’s perspective. Phillips received a Student Research Fellowship from the American Association for Dental Research for the project.

Initial interviews for the project have pointed to an array of possible challenges, Phillips said, ranging from cost to medical anxiety and fear of discrimination. Brickhouse noted that oral health plays an integral role in overall health, but a lack of access for vulnerable populations leads to higher risk for a range of health issues, making it crucial to thoroughly understand any barriers to care.

Gathering community-based research on the topic not only will help educate oral health professionals, Phillips said, but also will identify vital needs of the LGBT community. The existence of the research also will help secure funding for programs that address those identified needs, he said.

“It’s very important to clearly understand these issues in order to make sure that we address them,” Phillips said.

Brickhouse said that Phillips has proven adept at identifying the gaps in existing research and developing a plan and best practices to address those gaps.

“He’s been phenomenal,” she said.

For Phillips, it’s natural to use research to dig into real-world issues and develop solutions that can have an enduring impact. Research’s appeal stems from its potential to affect the lives of others, he said.

“I see it as coming at dentistry from two different perspectives,” he said. “There’s the one-on-one perspective where you’re working with patients and you can see that impact on individual lives, and there’s also the research perspective where you can make a more indirect impact but one that is really pervasive. That’s what really attracts me to it.”

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