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New Center for Oral Health Care Quality and Safety looks for clues to use

Published: May 10, 2019 by Ruth SoRelle, MPH

Collage of health care worker holding tablet computer, overlaid with icons representing science and medicine
The Center for Oral Health Care Quality and Safety will contribute to clinical safety while learning from clinical experiences.
Muhammad Walji, MS, PhD
Dr. Muhammad Walji will oversee UTSD's new Center for Oral Health Care Quality and Safety.

HOUSTON -- More than 195,000 dental practitioners in the U.S. care for over 127 million patients each year at a cost of nearly $120 billion, yet little is known about the quality of the care.

A new Center for Oral Health Care Quality and Safety at UTHealth School of Dentistry will use informatics approaches to look for answers in the BigMouth Dental Data Repository, a growing database that already has more than 3 million de-identified electronic health records contributed by eight dental schools across the U.S., including UTSD.

But that’s just one part of the new center’s mission.

“The center is a mix of research and clinical care,” said Muhammad Walji, PhD, MS, associate dean for technology services and informatics at UTSD. “We learn from what is happening in our clinics to inform our projects. Similarly, results from research inform how we treat our patients, and ensure the highest quality."

The center conducts research, develops informatics tools, and implements improvements in patient care across UTSD’s clinical programs and at collaborating institutions across the country. Existing federally funded research programs will continue supporting development of dental decision support systems, a patient safety toolkit, the dental data repository, and more. 

“We’re looking at BigMouth to gauge what we call ‘quality measures,’” Walji said. “If you’re a child, we know that to prevent decay, we can actually put a sealant on the tooth to keep it healthy. Even though this is well established in science, people still don’t do it for various reasons. In the future, can we look at the data and provide institutions with information about their sealant rate? Sealant is just one example of this.”

Another type of research at the center seeks to generate new science. For example, how long does it take for a dental implant to fail? What factors are associated with an implant failing? Researchers can evaluate information in the database to study that and a host of issues in oral care.

“We’re also interested in looking at how dental health affects overall health,” Walji said. “We know patients with diabetes have a higher risk of gum disease. How does it affect health?”

UTSD Dean John Valenza, DDS, said the new center will answer important questions about different kinds of care and point toward better treatments.

“By evaluating the information in BigMouth, we will develop innovations that improve oral care globally,” he said. “The new center goes hand in hand with our quality assurance/improvement efforts in turning results from the research into improvement of clinical care at the chairside.”

The BigMouth Dental Data repository, begun in 2012, contains electronic health records contributed by UTSD and dental schools at Harvard University, Tufts University, the University of California San Francisco, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Michigan, the University of Colorado, and Loma Linda University.



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