by Sheila Smith Noonan
Dental students learn about medical conditions, but their medical counterparts rarely receive the opposite opportunity. That is, unless they are students at UMDNJ's School of Osteopathic Medicine (SOM), where the Department of Dental Medicine is bridging the gap.
"This integration of dentistry within an osteopathic medical school curriculum is a first in the nation," says Dr. George Mardirossian ('67), chair of the Department of Dental Medicine at SOM and director of extramural education at NJDS. "We believe the more medical students learn about the mouth, teeth, and oral diseases, the better primary care physicians they will be."
In most medical schools, says Dr. Mardirossian, dentistry-related topics may account for one or two hours of instruction. But when students complete the SOM program, he expects them to be able to conduct a thorough head and neck examination, including the mouth; assess oro-facial injuries; understand the relationship of oral disease to systemic disease, drug therapy, and other medical treatment modalities; and understand the concepts of preventive dentistry. And as part of the primary care philosophy closely embraced at SOM, medical students will learn the importance of developing professional relationships with dentists.
For first- and second-year students, the program begins as a "course without walls," in which elements of dentistry are woven into other curricula. Anatomy class, for example, includes discussion of the muscles of mastication, the jaws, and teeth. During clinical rotations, seniors spend a full day at NJDS's Community Oriented Dental Education (CODE) center in Somerdale, N.J., where they watch dentists and learn how to conduct an oral exam.
John Osborne, a fourth-year SOM student, has used his dental training to link a patient's staph infection to a dental abscess. He recognizes the importance of understanding the oro-facial region. "Mostly out of fear, many people would rather see a physician than a dentist," says Mr. Osborne, who plans to specialize in internal medicine. "If I can recognize signs of tooth decay and other dental conditions early on, I can refer them to a dentist before there is tooth loss."
Adds Betsy Blaskopf, another fourth-year SOM student, "Too often physicians overlook their patients' mouths, especially in dealing with older people. A patient may not complain about tooth pain, but when we look for answers to their nutritional problems, that may be an underlying cause."
The idea for the department began with former NJDS Dean Dominick DePaola and SOM Dean Frederick Humphrey II and was approved by the UMDNJ Board of Trustees in 1989. It stayed in a conceptual stage until 1993, when Dr. Mardirossian, a professor of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, spent a six-month sabbatical at SOM to develop the curriculum. With the continued
support of Dr. Humphrey and the efforts of Dean Robert Saporito, SOM's Department of Dental Medicine was officially launched last July. Joining Dr. Mardirossian are Dr. George Seng, vice chair, and five other dentists who have taught at the medical school.
Dr. Mardirossian's enthusiasm for this new venture and his academic and administrative experience are a combination for success. He joined NJDS 21 years ago in the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, where he became a professor in 1992. He's served on curriculum committees since the early '80s, was the acting associate dean for Academic Affairs and the acting chairman of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, and for 12 years has been course director of the clinical medicine course at NJDS. Yet with all these responsibilities, Dr. Mardirossian remains true to his call as an educator. In 1979 and 1991, students selected him to receive the UMDNJ Foundation's Excellence in Teaching Award.
"Fifty years ago, the dental profession knew it needed to learn a lot more medicine to practice dentistry," says Dr. Mardirossian, a former NJDS Alumni Association president. "Already we have seen tremendous enthusiasm within the SOM to learn more about our profession of dentistry."