Are dentists interested in the oral-systemic disease connection? A qualitative study of an online community of 450 practitioners
Dentists in the US see an increasing number of patients with systemic conditions. These patients are challenging to care for when the relationship between oral and systemic disease is not well understood. The prevalence of professional isolation exacerbates the problem due to the difficulty in finding expert advice or peer support. This study aims to identify whether dentists discuss the oral-systemic connection and what aspects they discuss; to understand their perceptions of and attitudes toward the connection; and to determine what information they need to treat patients with systemic conditions.
We retrieved 14,576 messages posted to the Internet Dental Forum from April 2008 to May 2009. Using natural language processing and human classification, we identified substantive phrases and keywords and used them to retrieve 141messages on the oral-systemic connection. We then conducted coding and thematic analysis to identify recurring themes on the topic.
Dentists discuss a variety of topics on oral diseases and systemic health, with the association between periodontal and systemic diseases, the effect of dental materials or procedures on general health, and the impact of oral-systemic connection on practice behaviors as the leading topics. They also disseminate and share research findings on oral and systemic health with colleagues online. However, dentists are very cautious about the nature of the oral-systemic linkage that may not be causal. Nonetheless, they embrace the positive association as a motivating point for patients in practice. When treating patients with systemic conditions, dentists enquire about the cause of less common dental diseases potentially in relation to medical conditions in one-third of the cases and in half of the cases seek clinical guidelines and evidence-based interventions on treating dental diseases with established association with systemic conditions.
Dentists’ unmet information needs call for more research into the association between less studied dental conditions and systemic diseases, and more actionable clinical guidelines for well-researched disease connections. To improve dissemination and foster behavioral change, it is imperative to understand what information clinicians need and in which situations. Leveraging peer influence via social media could be a useful strategy to achieve the goal.