Dental students expand outreach programs for HIV patients

HIV Dental Clinic

People living with HIV and AIDS spend considerable time taking care of their medical needs. But because of a lack of access or other factors, they sometimes fail to get the dental exams and treatment they require. This gap in care is especially concerning because oral infections caused by poor hygiene and dental disease could be exacerbated by a compromised immune system.

To further meet the dental care needs of HIV-positive individuals, three Penn Dental Medicine students, one post-baccalaureate student, and two faculty members in the Division of Community Oral Health are working with Philadelphia FIGHT, the city’s largest comprehensive care provider for people living with HIV/AIDS. The program they launched in November is offering educational services and oral screenings, as well as investigating ways to provide additional care to ensure clients’ needs are met.

Third-year students Kari Hexem and Jonathan Vo and fourth-year student Tyler Smith all had connections to Philadelphia FIGHT prior to initiating the new program, which will fulfill requirements for their community health honors program. Hexem and Smith had interned at the organization as part of Penn’s “Bridging the Gaps” experiential summer program, and Vo was an active volunteer.

“One of the things I really liked about Philadelphia FIGHT is that it’s amazingly comprehensive,” says Hexem. “But at the same time, they had a lot of difficulty getting their clients access to dental care. When the center’s executive director Jane Shull reached out to us summer interns to get feedback, I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there were dental services here?’”

While the cost of setting up a full-service dental clinic was prohibitive, Hexem, Vo, and Smith consulted with faculty members, including Joan Gluch, interim division chief of community oral health, and clinical associate Ellen Witsch, a public health dental hygiene practitioner, to see how they might meet the dental needs of the FIGHT community.

HIV Dental2

“To move the project forward, we wanted to begin with educational services and dental screenings as a way to identify patients who needed care and help with their referral for treatment at Penn’s dental clinics. We also suggested portable dental equipment, rather than going from zero to a hundred to get a fully functioning clinic off the ground,” says Hexem.

To obtain the needed portable dental equipment and supplies, FIGHT received both private funding from the Independence Blue Cross Foundation and federal funds targeted to HIV/AIDS programs.   

Currently, the students, supervised by Witsch, are conducting oral health screenings and educational sessions at the center, and have set up an organized referral program for FIGHT clients to receive dental care at Penn Dental. Pre-dental post-bacc student Sheera Mirza is helping with data entry and patient followup. Plans are also being discussed to offer preventive services and to involve more dental students in working at FIGHT.

“Our initial experiences at FIGHT confirm that many of the clients have significant dental needs,” Hexem says. “Our hope is that, in five years, we’ll have a comprehensive approach to ensure that dental care is integrated as an essential health care service at FIGHT.”

Originally published on January 16, 2014