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How might a cavity prevention program reduce oral health disparities in children? Is it possible to reduce how often dentists prescribe opioid pain relievers following certain procedures?

The Texas Center for Oral Healthcare Quality and Safety, a new program at UTHealth School of Dentistry, is tackling complex questions like these. Led by Muhammad F. Walji, PhD ’06, the center partners with biomedical informaticians at UTHealth School of Biomedical Informatics to use big data analytics to seek answers in the BigMouth Dental Data Repository. This centralized database includes more than four million dental electronic health records from 11 dental schools across the nation, including UTHealth.

“Each year, dental practitioners in the United States provide care to more than 127 million patients, amounting to total costs of more than $120 billion,” says Walji. “Despite our nation’s tremendous investment in oral health, we have an untapped opportunity to improve the quality of care and to reduce and prevent adverse events that result from standard dental intervention such as using sealant to prevent cavities in children.”

Another way the center is improving oral health is by developing dental learning health systems to continuously evaluate dental care and create better patient outcomes. Informatics tools help dental providers capture patient data, which researchers and computer programs analyze to improve care.The improvement process is ongoing, with patient care informing research, and research informing patient care.

For example, researchers in the center are partnering with University of California San Francisco School of Dentistry to create the Open Wide Learning Lab, which will help identify threats to dental patient safety, test strategies to prevent them, and implement and evaluate those strategies.

“With the Open Wide Learning Lab, we’re examining the big picture to reduce adverse dental events and make dental care safer for patients at both institutions,” explains Walji. “We’re identifying changes we can make in organization, policies, practices, and culture to improve care.” 

But quality dental care goes beyond caring for the mouth; researchers at the center also study how dental care can make a greater impact on overall health by embracing the importance of treating the whole patient.

“We think dental providers could play a role in mitigating the opioid epidemic,” says Walji. “To study this, we are implementing a mobile health application that allows patients who had a recent dental procedure to self-report their pain to their care provider via text messages with the hope of reducing unnecessary opioid prescriptions.”

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