Willamette Dental Group is not your typical dental company. Focused on homecare and preventive therapy, treatment is standard across the board. It is a privately held, accountable-risk bearing entity that provides individualized treatment programs for more than 400,000 members. With offices serving more than 50 communities, it is the Northwest’s largest team of dental healthcare providers.
These reasons, along with many others, set Willamette Dental Group apart from other dental organizations, making it a prime candidate for research and study.
This past September, the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) funded a consortium of nine separate studies focused on studying the oral health of children in the United States. One of those studies, “Evaluating Standardized Preventive Care to Reduce Dental Disparities in Children,” will assess the effectiveness of Willamette Dental Group’s tooth decay prevention program.
Remember the part about Willamette Dental Group being different?
“Willamette Dental Group is leading the country, and the world, in its scientific-based preventive care model,” said Dr. Joel White, a doctor of dental surgery and professor in the Department of Preventive and Restorative Dental Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco. “It’s exciting to be able to show that what the employees of Willamette Dental Group do every day is a great job of taking care of the patients’ needs, and this work will codify that.”
White refers to the NIDCR study, and it’s important to understand why academic institutions like UCSF, Harvard and the Oregon Health & Science University are so excited to work with Willamette Dental Group.
“[Willamette Dental Group] has all the components: electronic health records, dental diagnostic terminology, clinical decision support, prevention and intervention, treatment, and patient engagement all wrapped up together,” said White.
Think about your typical obstacle course. You can’t move on to the third obstacle until you’ve completed the first two. It’s the same idea with this research study. Willamette Dental Group has implemented many organizational policies and procedures, which have allowed the company to grow to where they are now.
“This was the next logical step in a number of things Willamette Dental Group had already done,” said Beth Mertz, who has a doctorate in medical sociology and is one of the principal investigators on this study. “[Willamette Dental Group] has built to the place where we could do this. If those things had not been in place, this grant would not be possible.”
But why is this research important?
“Everybody knows if you have a broken tooth, you can go to the dentist and get it fixed, but does that make you healthier? Are you better in the long term because you got that tooth fixed?” said Mertz.
Mertz, a UCSF researcher for 18 years and professor for the last six, said the study will allow researchers to look at the entire process of oral hygiene and care, including everything from daily flossing to annual cleanings to x-rays. This review will enable them to understand the extent to which Willamette Dental Group’s treatment model and practice philosophy produces healthy patients.
The study will be a multi-institutional effort. At least six different organizations and dozens of researchers and participants are teaming up to devote their time and effort to this study, which is scheduled to last until 2018.
“This is pretty complex. It’s got patient health records, cost and cost benefit, patient interviews… and policy analysis. There’s no single individual who could do what we’re doing, so that’s why we have this team,” said Mertz.
Dr. Eugene Skourtes, the president and CEO of Willamette Dental Group, is excited about this study and feels it’s been a long time coming. He said the focus is to look at children who are commercially insured and children who are insured through the Oregon Health Plan and see whether or not his company can reduce the gap in disease that currently exists between the two.
“That’s what this study is going to show: Can we eliminate the disparities and can we make them healthier?” said Skourtes. “So, what’s that going to do for Willamette Dental Group? If we can get valid data to support that that’s happening, it’ll prove to the world that our model of dentistry should be performed, and if you come to Willamette, we can make you healthier.”
With exceptional people like Skourtes, Mertz and White at the helm, Willamette Dental Group and its research partners are sailing into uncharted waters as this study gets under way. Many have high expectations and are enthusiastic for promising results.
Most important of all is the role studies like this will play in Willamette Dental Group’s ability to partner with its patients in delivering proactive dental care through evidence-based methods of prevention and treatment.