Tufts’ New Oral Medicine Program

Dentists will learn how to care for patients with complex health issues

Dr. Athena Papas at dental clinic

Medical conditions such as Crohn’s disease, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes and HIV and even cancer treatment can cause oral health problems. Tufts School of Dental Medicine’s new postgraduate program in oral medicine will train dentists to care for these patients.

“Oral medicine is where dentistry and medicine overlap,” says Athena Papas, J66, chair of the dental school’s division of oral medicine, which focuses on the diagnosis and management of chronic health issues that affect the oral and maxillofacial regions.

The Oral Medicine Residency (OMR) program was accredited by the Council on Dental Accreditation in August 2014, and will accept its first residents this June. The OMR is a full-time, two-year certificate program, with the option of a third year leading to a master of science degree.

The residency program puts Tufts in the company of relatively few other dental schools—there are only six other oral medicine programs in the country accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation.

Of the 66 U.S. cancer centers designated by the National Cancer Institute, only 3 percent have formal postgraduate programs in dental oncology or oral medicine. Yet the demand for such services is increasing, especially as the population ages. “A lot of dentists don’t even know about oral medicine,” Papas notes.

“I am delighted that Tufts School of Dental Medicine will now have an accredited OMR program,” says Dean Huw F. Thomas. “It represents the culmination of a great amount of effort in planning and fosters continuing interactions between multiple schools and medical centers throughout the region. The program truly epitomizes a multidisciplinary approach to patient care and underscores our commitment to interprofessional education.”

While oral medicine is not among the nine specialties recognized by the American Dental Association, there is a professional organization, the American Academy of Oral Medicine, that certifies candidates in the field.

Tufts School of Dental Medicine is particularly well suited to host the residency program because it has operated an Oral Medicine Clinic since 1979 that sees more than 2,500 patients annually. The school’s Craniofacial Pain, Headache and Sleep Center treats 2,000 new patients every year.

Hospitals and specialists from throughout New England refer patients to the Oral Medicine Clinic for pre- and post-cancer dental care. A patient undergoing radiation treatment will have up to 10 times the rate of tooth decay of a healthy person, Papas says, because radiation reduces saliva flow. Patients undergoing radiation are also at risk for a severe bone disease known as osteonecrosis of the jaw, in which the jaw bone loses density and becomes weak.

Tufts’ Oral Medicine Clinic has one of the country’s largest programs for treating Sjögren’s patients as well. Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disorder, destroys the salivary glands and results in extreme dry mouth. Because the disease also affects the tear ducts and other moisture-producing glands, the oral medicine residents will have the opportunity to learn from ophthalmologists and rheumatologists as they treat Sjögren’s patients. (Papas serves on the medical advisory board of the Sjögren’s Syndrome Foundation.)

Residents will be able to examine patients being prepped for stem cell or organ transplants, manage oral health complications from radiation or chemotherapy and diagnose and treat infections in patients with complex medical issues, among other clinical work.

They will complete rotations at Tufts Medical Center, UMass Memorial Medical Center and Tufts Dental Facilities Serving Persons with Special Needs clinics throughout the state. The program will draw on the expertise of Tufts’ other health sciences schools and research collaborations with the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts.

“As a multidisciplinary field, this really fits in very well with the emphasis on interprofessional education that Dean Thomas is fostering,” Papas says. “After 40 years of promoting oral medicine at Tufts, I’m very excited about this new program. We have a very good team in place, both on the research side and the clinical side.”

Helene Ragovin can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.

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