Dentists and other doctors may finally begin to talk to each other about their common patients, if two giant Orange County healthcare companies have any say in it.
Irvine’s Pacific Dental Services and Fountain Valley’s MemorialCare on Dec. 8 announced a new venture that will allow more dentists to work at medical practices.
“Dentistry operates in a whole separate world,” Pacific Dental founder and Chief Executive Stephen Thorne IV said. “We’re working hard on how we can integrate them with the physicians and the overall healthcare system. Oral health means better health.”
MemorialCare CEO Barry Arbuckle added, “For us, it is the continued evolution and expansion of MemorialCare. As you know, we’ve kind of followed a different path than a lot of hospitals.”
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The venture joins Pacific Dental, which provides back-office services to more than 900 dental offices, with MemorialCare, which has 15,000 employees at 225 care locations, including two hospitals in Orange County.
The two companies—each part of this week’s Business Journal listing of Companies That Care (see Special Report, page 19)—didn’t disclose an amount they plan to spend on this venture.
They anticipate that within five years, about 25 practicing clinics will have dentists working in the same office as physicians. The first office should be operating by this summer, they said.
“For two organizations to come together in this sort of relationship is powerful,” Thorne said.
“This is the future. I really believe it. No one in the U.S. has done before what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Exactly why and for how long dentists haven’t been working closely with other physicians is unclear, the executives said.
“Dentistry has been separated from medicine for I think 180 years or so,” Thorne said. “It’s kind of crazy when you think about it.”
Arbuckle said dentistry has been in a silo like other medical professions, such as behavioral health clinicians, who rarely communicate with general practitioners.
“We’re trying to drive those together so it will lead to better outcomes,” he said.
In the United States, about 2 in 5 adults are affected by some form of gum disease, which is one of the earliest warning signs of systemic health conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and certain cancers.
The impetus for closer collaboration started with an Office of the Surgeon General report in 2000 that emphasized good oral health, said Thorne, who in 2015 started a task force to study solutions.
Pacific Dental has its own program called “The Mouth-Body Connection” where it attempts to improve the overall health of the patient, not just his or her mouth. Thorne said he’s also part of a Harvard advisory panel where he’s been asked to create “the first fully dental medical integrated plan.”
Among the many parallel efforts in this area, in 2021 the Centers for Disease Control announced a medical-dental integration partnership with the National Association of Chronic Disease Directors. Earlier this month, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced its final ruling that permits the expansion of coverage for medically necessary dental services as part of Medicare.
What will make this venture smoother, officials say, is that both Pacific Dental and MemorialCare use the same electronic health records system, made by Verona, Wisc.-based Epic Systems Corp.
The companies said primary health and oral health clinicians can use the system to seamlessly view patient data, including past dental and medical visits, lab results, and prescriptions, creating a comprehensive picture of a patient’s health for any provider they visit.
MemorialCare and Pacific Dental still need to work on details of their partnership, such as insurance plans as well as seeking new real estate for these offices in Orange County.
“We’re looking for more and more space,” Arbuckle said. “Finding good medical space isn’t easy.”
Physicians and dentists working together will be the future of healthcare, Thorne said.
“There’s not one cell in my body that doesn’t believe we’re not going to improve outcomes,” Thorne said. The biggest obstacle, he said, will be “getting the physicians and dentists to talk to each other.”