Maria Dolce, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of nursing in the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences, learned the impor­tance of team-​​based care by treating the crit­i­cally ill for some three decades.

She was aston­ished when she read com­ments from a cancer patient—one of nearly 500 sto­ries she was ana­lyzing for her doc­toral research—who wrote that she “had been to the den­tist twice with bleeding/​swollen gums, and had been to the doctor once with var­ious other symptoms—bruising, per­sis­tent cough, a cut that wouldn’t heal. Nei­ther one of these health­care providers con­nected the dots or even sug­gested a blood test.”

For Dolce, this story high­lighted two major gaps in the field: edu­cating health pro­fes­sionals about the rela­tion­ship between oral and sys­temic health and designing effec­tive models of pri­mary care that pro­mote inter­pro­fes­sional col­lab­o­ra­tion and communication.

Backed by a grant from the Den­taQuest Foun­da­tion, Dolce is now bridging these gaps with the devel­op­ment of a unique edu­ca­tional pro­gram called Oral Health Care TIPS (more for­mally known as Inno­va­tions in Inter­pro­fes­sional Oral Health Care: Tech­nology, Instruc­tions, Prac­tice, and Service).

The program—which aligns with Northeastern’s focus on solving the world’s most com­plex prob­lems in health, secu­rity, and sustainability—is part of the university’s broader com­mit­ment to improving health through inter­dis­ci­pli­nary col­lab­o­ra­tions. TIPS will inte­grate the oral health care cur­riculum with other health care pro­grams at the uni­ver­sity, bringing its team approach out into the com­mu­nity through pri­mary health care ser­vices. The goal is to pro­mote oral health care while pre­venting dis­ease, a model Dolce hopes to dis­sem­i­nate to aca­d­emic cen­ters and pri­mary care prac­tices across the country.

From the begin­ning, TIPS will aim to fun­da­men­tally change the land­scape of oral health care by edu­cating the next gen­er­a­tion of health­care pro­fes­sionals. “Cul­ti­vating col­lab­o­ra­tive lead­er­ship within our own stu­dents is key,” said Dolce. “Empow­ering stu­dents and unleashing their lead­er­ship poten­tial will drive our inter­pro­fes­sional edu­ca­tion model and inno­va­tions in oral health care.”

Preparing health pro­fes­sionals with team-​​based com­pe­ten­cies in oral health pro­mo­tion and dis­ease pre­ven­tion, and shifting from edu­cating health pro­fes­sionals sep­a­rately to inter­pro­fes­sional edu­ca­tion are imper­a­tives for improving oral health in America,” added Bouvé dean Terry Fulmer.

Maria Dolce, center, meets with nursing major Kathryn Robinson, right, and doctoral student Ashwini Ranade, left. Photo by Casey Bayer.

Maria Dolce, center, meets with stu­dents including nursing major Kathryn Robinson, right, and doc­toral stu­dent Ash­wini Ranade, left. Photo by Casey Bayer.

According to Dolce, the “silent epi­demic” of oral dis­eases is one of healthcare’s greatest chal­lenges. Each year, oral dis­eases affect mil­lions of chil­dren and adults, most of them from the nation’s most vul­ner­able pop­u­la­tions: poor chil­dren, preg­nant women, older adults, indi­vid­uals with spe­cial health care needs, and racial and ethnic minorities.

Nonethe­less, dental dis­ease is pre­ventable, said Ralph Fuc­cillo, chief mis­sion officer of Den­taQuest and pres­i­dent of the Den­taQuest Foun­da­tion. “A pri­mary care clin­i­cian may be the first and some­times only health pro­fes­sional to eval­uate the oral health of some people. The work of pro­fessor Dolce and her North­eastern Uni­ver­sity col­leagues is expanding the role that the health team has to improve oral health,” he explained. “That’s thou­sands of new eyes ready to iden­tify and help indi­vid­uals who are at risk for dental disease.”

Dolce envi­sions a sce­nario in which an older adult patient expe­ri­encing dry mouth visits a pri­mary care prac­tice where she is treated by a team including a physi­cian, nurse prac­ti­tioner, phar­ma­cist, den­tist, nutri­tionist, mental health clin­i­cian, and other health pro­fes­sionals. “That’s because dry mouth in older adults is often related to the use of many dif­ferent med­ica­tions and can lead to other prob­lems impacting quality of life like their ability to eat, swallow, speak, and sleep, some­times causing psy­cho­log­ical dis­tress and increasing the risk for devel­oping tooth decay,” said Dolce. “A physi­cian cannot tackle all of these chal­lenges alone.”