Luxury vs. necessity — Dr. Wenyuan Shi shares insights into dentistry's complex field

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Dentistry remains an evolving field, with new technology being developed and new models of practice being introduced to dentists.

In an interview with Becker's Dental Review, Cambridge, Mass.-based Forsyth Institute CEO and Chief Scientific Officer Wenyuan Shi, PhD, highlighted different clinical and functional facets of dental care.

Note: Responses have been edited for style.

Question: How has the connection between oral health and overall health impacted dentistry?

Dr. Wenyuan Shi: An increasing number of industry experts are beginning to research the connection between oral health and overall health and realize the mouth can serve as a portal for identifying health issues and diseases elsewhere in the body. When I was a medical school professor at UC Los Angeles, I was asked to teach dental students microbiology and that’s where I began introducing a lot of medical concepts into the field. In the past, dental training could be thought of like handyman skills; dentists specialized in drilling, filing work and sealants. Now, dentists are encouraged to think outside of the mouth and incorporate research into their training and ultimately into their patient care.

When Forsyth Institute opened in 1910, its mission was to provide basic dental care for children across Massachusetts. It quickly became clear that pediatric oral disease could not just be treated away with filings, sealant, fluoride, etc. Children were already suffering from dental diseases that were affecting their overall health, and most times it was too late for treatment.

By incorporating research into dentistry, we can further explore the connection between oral health and overall health while taking preventative measures to holistically treat problems.

Q: To some, dental care is seen as a luxury. How are you working to change this notion?

WS: The current dental care delivery system tends to put a burden on the patient, which makes those who cannot access or afford care approach dental care as a luxury. Even in Massachusetts we are seeing a large gap between need and care — especially among the most underserved populations.

We are directly addressing this gap through our ForsythKids program, a mobile dental clinic that travels to communities across the state to treat children where they live, learn and play. Through this program, participating children receive on-site dental examinations, oral health education, dental cleanings, fluoride application and sealants. We visit schools, summer camps and other community program sites.

It’s important a proper dental hygiene routine is established at an early age, so we also focus on treating and educating women during pregnancy. By taking a preventative approach to dental care, we are ensuring that children maintain quality oral — and overall health — throughout their life.

Q: Kentucky recently took steps to cut its Medicaid dental insurance program. Do you foresee this becoming a trend? Will dental insurance transition into covering major surgeries or continue being preventive-focused?

WS: Dental care isn’t considered to be medical care by Medicaid, and the insurance system in certain states oftentimes reflects that. It’s no surprise that the healthcare industry is rapidly changing, therefore, it’s hard to predict what the future holds for dental insurance. However, mobile dental clinics and community-based programs are becoming more prevalent across the country and help reach people who cannot otherwise access quality dental care. By utilizing schools, summer camps, community centers and public events, we can create these critical access points to dental care and treat those who cannot access or afford dental work.

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