U.S. Surgeon General Addresses the Importance of Oral Health and the Prominence of Social Determinants During a Recent HSDM Webinar

December 16, 2020
Headshot of the U.S. Surgeon General, VADM Jerome Adams, MD, MPH.

In early December, Harvard School of Dental Medicine (HSDM) welcomed United States Surgeon General Vice Admiral (VADM) Dr. Jerome M. Adams for a special virtual Oral Health Seminar Series event. VADM Adams was joined by Jane Barrow, associate dean of the Office of Global and Community Health, and executive director of the Harvard School of Dental Medicine’s Initiative to Integrate Oral Health and Medicine, and HSDM Dean, William Giannobile. Adams spoke about the connection between oral health and primary care, the role that dental professionals and other frontline health care professionals have played during the COVID-19 pandemic, and oral health care outcomes and disparities.

“We know that oral health is integral to our overall health, as well as the health of our communities and our nation,” said Adams speaking to an audience of oral health care professionals and members of the HSDM community.

“You've helped the entire clinical community understand best practices around oral hygiene that can reduce COVID-19 transmission in situations where a face mask simply can't be worn,” he said. “I applaud your collaboration across medical professions to ensure the health and safety of patients and of practitioners. Both during COVID 19 and beyond, you play a critical, critical role,” he said.

As the nation’s 20th Surgeon General, Adams serves to advance the health of the American people. His motto “better health through better partnerships” places an emphasis on forging new partnerships and strengthening existing relationships with members of the business, faith, education, public safety, and national security communities. During his time as U.S. Surgeon General, Adams implemented several initiatives to confront our nation’s most pressing health issues, including the opioid epidemic, oral health, and the links between community health and economic prosperity and national security. He addressed oral health disparities throughout his remarks.

“Key oral health outcomes related to disparities include dental carries, periodontal disease, and oral cancer. When we think of health, including oral health, many of us immediately think about health care. But what I want you to understand, is that as critical as health care is, overall health, and especially oral health, actually begins at home. And it’s a vicious cycle, what we call social determinants. Things like a living wage, clean drinking water, housing security, they contribute to medical determinants. Chronic diseases such as diabetes, periodontal disease, and hypertension are especially common in people of color,” Adams said.

Adams also noted the importance of diversity and inclusion in the medical and dental fields. “Studies show that people of color feel more comfortable, and often have better outcomes, when they see a clinician who looks like them,” he said. “Less than four percent of all dentists are Black. As an additional element that leads to disparities, we know that health and the economy are inextricably linked, and socioeconomic status is tied to an individual's health outcomes, including oral health. The pandemic has made this linkage even more apparent.”

In his upcoming Surgeon General's Report on Community Health and Economic Prosperity (CHEP), which will be released in the next several months, VADM Adams will share ways for businesses to address disparities and disadvantages in health care in the U.S.

“My mission with the Report on Community Health and Economic Prosperity is to mobilize businesses to invest deeply in the health of their communities, including taking measures to improve oral health. Because we know this will not just improve health, but it will create a healthier bottom line,” he said.

In early 2021, the Surgeon General plans to release a spotlight on oral health. The spotlight will preview an examination of some key issues affecting oral health across the lifespan, including children, adolescents, adults, and older adults.

“We were honored to have the Surgeon General join us at HSDM to address important oral health care needs for all Americans. He understands how critical oral health is to overall health, and the disparities that exist in access to care. He is an advocate for these needs on a national level, said Dean William Giannobile. “Additionally, we were excited to hear about the upcoming release in 2021 of the US Surgeon General's Report on Oral Health. Many HSDM faculty members were involved in this international effort that will be an update to the landmark report of 2000."

“The upcoming spotlight will focus on the integration of oral health and primary care and workforce issues, the relationship between oral health and substance abuse disorders, the opioid epidemic, high risk behaviors such as smoking and vaping, and emerging technologies and promising science that is transforming oral health and health delivery,” Adams said. “As dental professionals, you're trusted sources of clinical and health related advice. Critical team
members, with unique roles in answering patient's questions, providing and translating scientific information, and more.”

Jane Barrow shared, "The Surgeon General has put a spotlight on how important oral health is to our overall health, as well as the many social determinants of health. Through his task forces and special reports, he is helping the nation gain a better understanding of barriers to health and wellness for all Americans. We're grateful for this time and his expertise!"

To view the entire seminar, click here.