A regional health care provider and a national dental support organization are forming a partnership to put physicians and dentists under one roof, allowing practitioners to seamlessly share information on patients and giving patients access to their primary and dental health records all in one place.
Barry Arbuckle, president and CEO of MemorialCare, and Pacific Dental Services founder and CEO Stephen Thorne recently announced the joint venture at Pacific Dental Services headquarters in Irvine.
“We know this is going to elevate patient care,” Arbuckle said. “It allows oral health and physical health to be combined where clinical evidence has suggested it needs to be.
“We can reduce costs for the patients, we can increase access to care for the patients and connect folks who have a primary care doctor that don’t have a dentist with dentists, and visa-versa,” he added.
Under the agreement, the two organizations plan to, over the next five years, open 25 integrated primary health-dental locations throughout Orange and Los Angeles counties with coordinated care. Records will be maintained by Wisconsin-based healthcare software systems Epic, makers of MyChart, helping with coordination between care providers and giving patients access to upcoming appointments, test results, medications and other information.
The joint venture between a regional healthcare system and national dental organization on the same electronic health records system is believed to the first of its kind.
For well over 100 years, dentistry and medicine have typically operated in separate worlds, Thorne said.
“It’s kind of crazy when you think about it,” he said. “Dentistry is the only healthcare profession that actually has its own coding system. That is how separate we are.
“One of the things we’ve done at (Pacific Dental Services) so that we can work with MemorialCare is to update our entire platform to a true electronic health record, because oral health matters,” he said. “Oral health means better health. So, it’s time.”
Currently, a physician might refer a patient to a dentist or a dentist might refer a patient to a physician, but there is no communication beyond the referral, said Dr. Mark Schafer, CEO of the MemorialCare Medical Group.
“What we envision is having them together in the same location, in an integrative clinic, sharing the same medical records, so they can see what diseases the patient has, the medications they are on, the tests that have been done,” Schafer said. “That way, they can have preventive health done on both sides. I think we will diagnose things early … and we’ll treat them so that the outcomes are better and it will save money for the system and the patient as well.”
In 2015, Thorne organized a task force and hired a marketing firm to study the possibility of bringing dentists and physicians into a single healthcare facility and whether patients would welcome such a model.
He cited a series of Surgeon General reports going back more than 20 years, which say oral health is an essential component of overall health. Recommendations from a 2021 report on the connection between oral health and general health included the creation of infrastructure that “meets the oral health needs of all Americans and integrates oral health effectively into overall health.”
On Nov. 1, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid announced the agency will begin covering dental services for Medicare beneficiaries under certain conditions deemed medically necessary. The expanded dental coverage goes into effect Jan. 1.
“There is not a cell in my body that doesn’t believe we are going to improve outcomes,” Thorne said. “We will improve the health of anybody that gets in this integrated model.”
MemorialCare has already formed partnerships with physical therapy services and dialysis and ambulatory surgical centers, Arbuckle said, so including oral care is a logical next step.
“So, for us, it’s just to provide expansion to more access points, and for us to kind of weave together that continuum of health in health care,” Arbuckle said. “Clinicians all understand the connection between oral health and physical health, between behavioral health and physical health, but they’ve been in silos, so we are trying to drive those together. It will lead to better outcomes … for sure.”
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