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Redefining Health Care

Monday, September 12, 2011
Pittsburgh -- In the current American health care structure, medical care is usually separated from dental care. However, new research shows an alarmingly increasing number of ways in which isolating the mouth from the rest of the body can harm a patient.

With the rest of the nation focusing on how to make health care affordable, Valerie Powell, university professor of computer and information systems, has spent the last four years drawing attention to these potentially fatal problems. She isn’t alone. The American Heart Association now includes flossing as an important measure in preventing heart disease on its list with exercise and proper dieting. Studies have shown flossing regularly can reduce bacteria in the gums which narrow the blood vessels and prevent blood flow to the heart.

Integration of Medical and Dental Care and Patient Data, written by Powell and three co-editors, addresses the wide range of dangers inherent in the current system of organizing health care. It also attempts to find practical solutions while the federal government considers spending billions of dollars developing and maintaining a national health information network.

“Before you spend $5.5 billion, make sure that you have the correct model of care that you are trying to represent in the system,” Powell said. “One of the basic ideas of information systems, which we teach at Robert Morris, is that before you design a data base, know what it’s supposed to represent.”

In addition to the way the majority of health insurance providers differentiate between medical and dental care, the training given to physicians and dentists differs greatly despite the connections between the mouth and the rest of the body.

The list of potential problems with separating these two fields of medicine grows annually. The American Academy of Periodontology now links periodontitis to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer.

Although generally considered a dental issue, researchers have proven inflammation caused by periodontitis can increase the risk for cardiovascular disease, the leading killer of men and women in the United States.

“The thing that really startled me the most was one day I had this thought: 'If I had gone to medical school, I never would have noticed these problems,' Powell said.

In 2007, Powell was named to the Governor’s Chronic Care Management, Reimbursement and Cost Reduction Commission under then Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. As part of the commission, she began to realize the difficulties of organizing medical and dental records separately. Since then, she has been pursuing a remedy to the problem from every angle.

“I am used to looking at whole systems, looking at thousands of records, and I thought I needed to have the point of view the provider has when they take care of one patient at a time,” Powell said.

She began training as an X-ray technician to gain clinical experience and understand the point of view of care providers. Powell is now a registered radiographer and uses the perspective that provides to continue her efforts to integrate medical and dental care.

Models of effective care delivery and electronic health records are outlined in Integration of Medical and Dental Care and Patient Data, which is scheduled for publication in early 2012 by Springer Publishing Company.

“The only real solution is to say our goal is to have one kind of health care delivery program that includes all of these things in an integrated fashion so the providers can communicate with one another when they need to and should,” Powell said. “Then you have a chance to do it right.”

Powell said she hopes the book, along with visits to other universities and health organizations, will help spread awareness and motivate a solution to the problem.

“Here at Robert Morris, we are not waiting for other people to do the work. We see something, and we address it,” Powell said.

Robert Morris University, founded in 1921, is a private, four-year institution with an enrollment of approximately 5,000 undergraduate and graduate students. The university offers 60 undergraduate and 20 graduate programs. An estimated 22,000 alumni live and work in western Pennsylvania.