From Oral Care to Lifelong Health

Focusing on Dental Medicine

In 1960, Tufts University released the results of a multi-year self-study report. Sponsored by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation, the document evaluated programs across the university. (The Carnegie Corporation, a separate policy and research organization, had funded the 1926 Gies Report, which evaluated dental education across the United States and Canada.) The study committee recognized TUSDM as “the major facility for dental education in New England,” lauding its undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate divisions, as well as its research program. To build on this reputation, the committee called for improved research facilities, recommended that research personnel be elevated to full faculty positions, and suggested that dental research be woven more tightly into the fabric of the department’s professional work.

The trustees of Tufts University agreed, setting TUSDM on a trajectory that would reinforce and enhance its commitment to innovation and exploration. 

Yet one challenge remained. The Tufts dental and medical programs had been sharing a building for nearly sixty years, first at the corner of Huntington and Bryant Streets and then, after 1949, in a refurbished warehouse at 136 Harrison Avenue, adjacent to the New England Medical Center. Everyone seemed to agree that by sharing facilities, medical and dental students would be exposed to core science curriculums, which better equipped them for specialized training.

But there existed a perception among the dental faculty that the medical program overshadowed their own in the eyes of university administrators. This was not a matter of hubris. Rather, TUSDM faculty expressed concern that, at various stages of their education, dental students did not receive adequate training with hospitalized patients and hands-on work experience in medical practice. This, they argued, hampered students’ readiness for clinical work, internships, and professional practice.

Again, the trustees agreed and promised to modify the dental curriculum by expanding students’ access to patients, as well as the daily ins-and-outs of medical care “as resources and facilities permit[ted].”

This decision doubled down on a major rebranding that was, in 1960, still only five years old:  the change from the Tufts College Dental School to the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine.

A series of actionable steps backed this shift and aimed to reinforce the notion that TUSDM was committed to using training and research to promote oral care that would do more than keep patients’ teeth clean. It would factor in and seek to improve the overall health of every patient.

These steps predated the 1960 self-study. In 1956, TUSDM began saving money for a new facility—a goal to be realized in 1972 when the school moved into a new building. (Dedicated in April 1973, this facility at One Kneeland Street has been TUSDM’s home ever since.) The program also gained accreditation from the American Dental Association’s Council on Dental Education in 1958—just three years after changing its name and thereby staking its reputation on its ability to provide excellent oral care and to train dental professionals, all while connecting oral health to lifelong wellness.

When, in 1960, the trustees agreed to change the dental curriculum and give students greater access to patients, it also afforded them closer and more regular interaction with healthcare students and professionals from other fields. Training in this environment allowed TUSDM students to better conceptualize the relationship between in-chair clinical care, laboratory research, and the overall, total-body health of their patients.

As TUSDM refined its teaching program and expanded its research portfolio over the next few decades, the school continued to look for ways to train students to be conscious of a variety of factors that influenced patients’ total-body health and to reinforce the notion that good oral care contributed to long, healthy lives.

In recent years, this emphasis has been further evidenced by the creation of programs like the Tuft University Advanced Education in General Dentistry (AEGD) Program. Launched in 2014, this collaboration between TUSDM and facilities in Massachusetts and Maine places students in one-year residencies where they continue their training in the basic tenets of dentistry, quality assurance, and patient and clinical management—all while focusing on the ways in which “developmental disabilities, mental illness, and physical disabilities” affect oral health. In these ways, the AEGD program is representative of TUSDM’s ongoing efforts to integrate total-body health into the research and clinical practice.