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Oral health summit to focus on behavioral science

Oral health isn’t just about teeth. Thoughts and behaviors also play a big part.

Dentists have long known the importance of influencing people’s behaviors and attitudes to promote healthy teeth and gums. That explains a good deal of the impetus for the Behavioral and Social Oral Health Sciences Summit, which will be held this Thursday and Friday in a virtual space.

The summit, which features School of Dentistry faculty members in prominent roles, was originally scheduled as a symposium to take place ahead of the 2020 annual meeting of the International Association for Dental Research (IADR). When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the postponement of the IADR meeting, though, the summit was reinvented to be hosted virtually.

Interest in the event has been strong. Dr. Cameron Randall of the UW Department of Oral Health Sciences, a summit co-organizer, said Wednesday that registration exceeded 550 attendees, which was far more than initially expected.

“We have planned the summit and follow-up activities and publications to advance the application of behavioral and social sciences in dentistry and oral health research,” he said. “We hope this will cement past contributions and usher in a new wave of contemporary contributions to the field.”

While summit panels will discuss big-picture topics such as conceptual frameworks and methodologies, they will also focus on specifics such as research priorities, intervention strategies, and pain management that de-emphasizes opioid use.

Dr. Randall will be joined at the summit by Dr. Lisa Heaton of the UW Department of Oral Health Sciences. Both are clinical psychologists, and both are session co-chairs and members of the summit’s steering committee.

One session panel also includes Dr. Samuel Dworkin, a School of Dentistry professor emeritus and celebrated researcher who was a pioneer in introducing behavioral sciences into dental education. Dr. Dworkin, who co-authored an early book in the field, advocated for dentists to consider not only the physical aspects of treatment but the patient’s behavioral patterns and emotional state. In 2005, he received the Norton M. Ross Award for Excellence in Clinical Research, the American Dental Association’s highest research honor, for his work on the diagnosis and treatment of temporomandibular disorder and orofacial pain.

At the School of Dentistry, Dr. Randall’s and Dr. Heaton’s work has included treating patients’ dental phobias. In a clinical approach begun at the school in the 1970s, they have used desensitization therapy as a key psychological tool to help patients manage those fears while receiving dental treatment at the same time. Drs. Randall and Heaton also provide clinical services in the School of Dentistry’s oral medicine clinic, helping patients manage orofacial pain. Both maintain active programs of research on a variety of topics in behavioral dentistry.

A full summit program, including individual presentations, can be found here.