Abstract: Social Work and Oral Health: Opportunities for Research, Practice, Advocacy, and Education (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

334P Social Work and Oral Health: Opportunities for Research, Practice, Advocacy, and Education

Friday, January 14, 2022
Marquis BR Salon 6, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Melanie Morris, MSSW, Doctoral Student, Boston University, Boston, MA
Jamie Burgess-Flowers, MSW, Clinical Assistant Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
Background & Purpose: While national efforts have focused on transforming health systems to increase collaboration and integration of physical and behavioral health services, the inclusion of oral health as part of integrated service delivery remains underexplored in social work research (Duhl et al., 2016; Valachovic, 2019). Oral health presents a new setting to expand social work research, practice, and educational efforts to address patients whole-health needs. Addressing patient and population health more holistically requires seismic shifts in how integrated health care is implemented, delivered, and evaluated. To address this gap, this presentation: (a) Summarizes the research associations between oral health, behavioral health, and social needs, and (b) Discusses practice and policy recommendations to better integrate social determinants of health into oral health settings to promote health equity and awareness among student learners and practitioners, and (c) Describes pilot data on the role social workers play integrating into dental educational settings to begin meeting this need.

Methods: Data was collected from a mixed-methods exploratory study that assessed social work programs actively collaborating with schools of dentistry across U.S. universities (N=14). The survey design was guided by social work and integrated care experts, extant literature, and practitioner expertise based on existing dentistry/oral health collaborative models. Using purposeful sampling design, the survey was sent via Qualtrics to 14 schools known to have collaborative programs. Snowball sampling techniques were used to disseminate the survey beyond our original sampling frame. Data was cleaned and analyzed using SPSS. Qualitative open-ended coding using thematic content analysis and consensus around core themes.

Results: Findings suggest social workers are currently collaborating with oral health professionals and in dental education settings in numerous ways. Participants identified direct patient care in dental clinic settings as one of the main roles of social work. Social workers are members of health care teams with dental faculty and students to navigate biopsychosocial challenges that arise in delivering patient care. Secondly, participants shared another aspect of their role is to develop and teach curriculum to dental students that focus on behavioral health, social determinants of health, and psychosocial needs. Barriers and facilitators to sustaining these collaborative models, including financing, evaluation metrics, administrative barriers, and organizational/culture change, were also highlighted.

Conclusion& Implications: Physical, oral, behavioral health and unmet social needs create a web of factors that exacerbate disparities in access to health services and related outcomes. This presents a prime opportunity for social work to embrace oral health as a necessary and connected component of whole-health care. This pilot study underscores the value of integrating social workers into oral health settings. Social work integration in oral health has the potential to improve care and access, especially as oral health disparities disproportionately impact disadvantaged communities. As such, social work research has a role in documenting, evaluating, and advocating for new ways to comprehensively connect oral health and social needs to improve overall health outcomes.