The Rutgers School of Dental Medicine (RDSM) will lead a team of health care professionals to investigate the possible link between mental health issues and poor oral health with a one-year grant from the New Jersey Health Foundation.
Vaishali Singhal, associate professor at RSDM and the Rutgers School of Health Professions, and a cross-disciplinary team, including Jill York, assistant dean for extramural clinics at RSDM, and faculty members from SHP and Temple University’s College of Public Health, will examine the medical histories of 200,000 patients who visited the RSDM clinic between 2014 and 2019.
“The population with mental illness usually has poorer health than the general population – and that includes oral health,” said Singhal, who says this results in patients with mental illness experiencing higher oral diseases and poorer treatment outcomes compared to other patients.
Researchers will focus on decayed missing teeth to evaluate each patient’s oral health and investigate disparities in oral health in patients with and without a mental health diagnosis. They will also analyze clinics visits to determine treatment outcomes.
“We would like to gather the evidence so we can develop new treatment guidelines to treat oral diseases in this population and develop continuing education courses for licensed dentists,” said Singhal, a member of the American Dental Education Association's Social and Behavioral Health Committee that’s tasked to revise curriculum on this topic. “One of the contributing factors of poor oral health that we believe – and other researchers have also found – is that dental practitioners are not very well prepared to treat this population.”
While the correlation between mental health and dental health has been gaining some traction in academic literature, Singhal says it is an underexplored subject with only one or two dentists in the country focusing on the mental health connection. She hopes the findings will help to better prepare future and practicing dentists to treat patients with mental illness.
“I’d like to be able to do this [study] on a larger scale, possibly with multiple dental schools involved along the East Coast,” Singhal said. “That way, we can actually have greater evidence to change some of the curriculum guidelines.”