In a recent Slate article, a D.M.D candidate at the Harvard University medical and dental schools shares a compelling anecdote about the blurred line between dentistry and general medicine. Nisarg Patel was treating a patient’s fractured crown when he noticed the telltale signs of hyperplastic pulpitis, a rare inflammatory condition that causes pulp tissue to swell out of the tooth’s enamel shell.
As he was trained to do with every new patient, Patel took a blood pressure reading. The results were alarming, and Patel quickly realized that hyperplastic pulpitis was the least of his patient’s concerns.
Abnormally high blood pressure can cause spontaneous stroke, heart attack, or even kidney failure. Luckily, Patel caught the condition and referred his patient to a primary care physician, where she was quickly prescribed an antihypertensive drug.
These types of stories are not uncommon, and they highlight the fact that dental professionals are often in a great position to diagnose a wide range of health issues in their patients beyond oral health. Patients typically visit their dentist twice a year, while primary care physician visits can be far less frequent.
What’s more, a 2016 Association of American Medical Colleges report claims that the U.S. will see a primary care physician shortage over the next 10 years. In his article, Patel suggests that dental professionals can serve as a viable alternative, bridging the gap between dental and medical.
A study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information estimates that adding medical screenings for conditions like hypertension and diabetes in dental offices could save the U.S. health care system between $42 million and $102 million per year.
Patel suggests a re-evaluation of dental and medical education to equip healthcare providers with the skills to administer broader preventive care regardless of their chosen field—be it medical or dental.