Seeing Beyond the Mouth

January 24, 2018
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A new program that resulted from a collaboration between CDM and Columbia’s School of Social Work was launched last year to identify and help address psychological barriers that prevent patients from getting adequate and consistent oral health care. The program, called “Patient Support Services: Bringing Smiles to Patient Care,” was initiated by deans of both schools, who saw value in designing and implementing a social work unit in the dental teaching clinic.

The social work unit, consisting of two first-year social work graduate students and a program director, aims to empower patients and promote positive oral health through patient-centered care. The social work students identify the psychosocial needs of the patients coming to the clinic by using screenings and assessments, then offer counseling services or interventions. Some interventions, such as reduction of drill noises or providing stress balls, may appear simple but can effectively ease a patient’s anxiety during dental procedures.

“There is more to patients than just their teeth,” says Jennifer Frias, a social work graduate student who interns in the program. “We help the dental students to see beyond the mouth and understand other factors impacting the patient’s ability to successfully complete the dental treatment.”

In addition to encouraging dental students to see their patients holistically, the program offers social work students multidisciplinary experience and skills learned through exposure to a medical setting, including daily interactions with patients, case management responsibilities, and patient follow-up.

“The collaboration creates a solid infrastructure for patient service delivery and a psychosocial screening tool designed to allow for effective patient-centered care,” says Letty Moss-Salentijn, DDS, PhD, professor of dental medicine and vice dean for curriculum innovation and interprofessional education at CDM. “The program is a high quality social work field placement that further enhances the relationship between both schools of Columbia University.”

Stacey Whalen, director of the program, plans to advance the collaboration of the two schools. “We are still in the infancy stage of the social work integration,” she says. “I would like us to expand more into the dental curriculum, bring our services to other clinics, and create additional field placements.”