The oral cavity can reveal signs of malnutrition. Healthcare practitioners just need to know what these signs look like. That was the focus of a recent workshop hosted by the East Carolina University (ECU) School of Dental Medicine for dietetic interns and master’s students in ECU’s Department of Nutrition Science.
“Today’s workshop is a first for dental and nutrition science faculty collaboration,” said Geralyn Crain, DDS, PhD, a dental faculty member and interim assistant vice chancellor for interprofessional collaboration for the ECU Division of Health Sciences. “I’d like to see the dental and nutrition science areas become regular partners.”
Dental faculty members Nisha Ganesh, DDS, and Troy Sluder, DDS, shared a presentation on building an interprofessional oral health team. They illustrated normal structures in the oral cavity, demonstrated how to perform oral exams, and helped workshop participants perform oral exams on each other.
Next, the dental school’s pathologist, Bobby Collins, DDS, MS, discussed the oral manifestations of nutrition deficiency to help students recognize oral abnormalities that require nutritional and medical interventions. Plus, Sylvia Escott-Stump, MA, RDN, LDN, director of ECU’s dietetic internship program, noted that malnutrition also includes over-nutrition and obesity.
“What people assume, including some doctors, is that people who are overweight are well nourished, though their diet might be terrible, like eating all fats or all sugars,” said Escott-Stump. “So nutritionists need to be able to recognize signs of malnutrition, which can often be detected in the mouth and eyes.”
Crain and a leadership team from across ECU’s health sciences division are exploring ways to promote and support interprofessional practice, learning, research, and service throughout the division as part of a growing trend toward a patient-centered, collaborative approach to healthcare.
“There is no fence blocking inflammation caused by periodontal disease—that is, the effects of diseases of the gums and bone structure around the teeth—from spreading to other organs of the body. There is growing evidence in the connection between the inflammation caused by periodontal disease and heart disease, low neonatal birthweight and preterm delivery, and other disorders,” said Crain.
There is a current trend among primary care doctors to include an examination of the oral cavity as part of the routine exam that evaluates a patient’s head, ears, eyes, nose, and throat, Crain said.
Under Crain’s leadership, students in the accelerated second-degree bachelor of science in nursing program have helped screen patients for the dental school’s clinics. Also, general dentistry practice residents have instructed nurse-midwifery students in oral health screenings and examinations. And, dental students have helped to establish a prenatal oral health program in collaboration with the ECU Brody School of Medicine’s obstetrics and gynecology clinic.
“The learning between professions needs to go both ways,” said Crain. “For example, we are exploring ways to incorporate more nutrition science education into the dental school curriculum and clinics, and we’ll look to our nutrition science colleagues at ECU for partnership. There are so many ways that the health sciences can collaborate that will lead to reduced healthcare costs and enhanced patient outcomes.”