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Oral Health Care in the 21st Century: Implications for Dental and Medical Education

Hendricson, William D. MS; Cohen, Peter A. PhD

Institutional Issues: Articles

The past decade has been turbulent for dental education, marked by debate about the future directions of the curriculum and the profession itself. The bulk of the dental school curriculum is still devoted to tooth restoration or replacement techniques, although the need for these procedures has declined. Some dental educators now advocate an oral physician model as the desired direction for the profession, with expanded training in systemic disease pathophysiology and a practice scope that extends beyond exclusive focus on the teeth and supporting structures. Proponents of this model contend for curriculum time with faculty who desire to maintain a technical focus. The outcome of this curricular tug-of-war has implications for medical education, because many oral health problems now fall into the overlapping educational and patient care environments of physicians, dentists, and other health care providers. Will physicians perceive the new dentist as an encroachment on territory or as a resource to enhance patient care? Within dentistry, the traditions of tooth restoration and prosthodontics shape the profession's culture. Are dental educators ready to reconfigure a curriculum that is deeply intertwined with the professional identity of 150,000 U.S. dentists practicing today?

To stimulate thinking about these issues, the authors analyze the responses of dental education to changes in the public's oral health and to calls for curricular reform, propose strategies for modifying the way dentists are prepared for their professional responsibilities, and explore the sociology of change in academic institutions, because elements of dental education targeted for reform are revered components of school culture.

Mr. Hendricson is director, Division of Educational Research and Development, The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, San Antonio, Texas, and is associate editor, Journal of Dental Education. Dr. Cohen is dean, College of the Health Professions, Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas.

Correspondence and requests for reprints should be addressed to Mr. Hendricson, Division of Educational Research and Development, The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, 7703 Floyd Curl Drive, San Antonio, Tχ 78229-3900; telephone: (210) 567-2813; e-mail: <>.

© 2001 Association of American Medical Colleges