Ear­lier this week, more than 100 mem­bers of the local and national health­care com­mu­nity con­vened at the Cabral Center to kick off a Northeastern-​​based ini­tia­tive aimed at inte­grating oral health into overall health­care edu­ca­tion and practice.

The bottom line is that oral health is con­nected to overall health, and you can’t address those sep­a­rately without risking serious con­se­quences,” said the event’s keynote speaker John Auer­bach, Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Prac­tice at the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ence and Director of Northeastern’s Insti­tute on Urban Health Research and Prac­tice.

Each year, the United States spends about $120 bil­lion on dental health ser­vices, Auer­bach said. But this only reflects the direct cost of oral health; indi­rect costs of untreated dental dis­ease are far greater. “If you ignore oral health,” he said, “you end up paying for it later.”

In order to address this fis­sure in overall health­care, asso­ciate pro­fessor of nursing Maria Dolce is spear­heading the new ini­tia­tive, titled Inno­va­tions in Inter­pro­fes­sional Oral Health Care: Tech­nology, Instruc­tion, Prac­tice, Ser­vice. Backed by funding from the Den­taQuest Foun­da­tion, the char­i­table arm of the nation’s third largest dental ben­e­fits admin­is­trator, TIPS aims to estab­lish a national model for health­care edu­ca­tion and prac­tice in the Boston area.

Our mis­sion is to advance inter­pro­fes­sional research edu­ca­tion and prac­tice in oral health,” Dolce said. “Our vision is a health pro­fes­sions work­force with the team-​​based com­pe­ten­cies to work, lead, and inno­vate together to improve oral health out­comes, expe­ri­ences, and access.”

Terry Fulmer, dean of the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences, chal­lenged health leaders in atten­dance to think about ways to drive change and inno­va­tion in the area of oral health­care. “This is a tipping-​​point moment, and we can do this,” said Fulmer, who is a member of the Insti­tute of Med­i­cine and a nation­ally rec­og­nized expert in geriatrics.

Fol­lowing the speakers’ remarks, audi­ence mem­bers were invited to share their col­lec­tive wisdom on how to make the inter­pro­fes­sional oral health­care vision a reality. Photo by Casey Bayer.

Auer­bach noted that oral health is not a stan­dard part of a well-child’s visit to the pedi­a­tri­cian or a preg­nant woman’s visit to the obste­tri­cian despite the fact that dental dis­ease is among the most preva­lent yet pre­ventable con­di­tions affecting our nation. Nor is it a reg­ular con­sid­er­a­tion in the treat­ment of patients with dia­betes, HIV/​AIDS, or car­dio­vas­cular disease—all of which are deeply affected by oral health.

Mass­a­chu­setts, how­ever, leads the nation in the number of adults who say they vis­ited the den­tist in the last year, according to Auer­bach, who pre­vi­ously served as the Com­mis­sioner of Public Health in Mass­a­chu­setts and the exec­u­tive director of the Boston Public Health Com­mis­sion during the devel­op­ment of Massachusetts’s ground breaking health­care reform leg­is­la­tion, which is now being emu­lated on the national level.

Catherine Hayes, pres­i­dent of the Amer­ican Asso­ci­a­tion of Public Health Den­tistry, agreed that Mass­a­chu­setts has the oppor­tu­nity to take the national lead on an impor­tant health­care issue. “There’s lots of oppor­tu­nity to under­stand how we can make it better, but now the time is cer­tainly here to hit the ground and make this happen,” Hayes said, pointing to Dolce’s lead­er­ship and the TIPS ini­tia­tive as a dri­ving force behind the change.

Ralph Fuc­cillo, chief mis­sion officer of Den­taQuest and pres­i­dent of the Den­taQuest Foun­da­tion, said, “The real story is the way we interact to get those out­comes that we all believe in.”