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Diabetes and the Dentist

Updated: Jul 5, 2023

New Borderplex Diabetes Initiative Announced by Paso del Norte Health Foundation and Hunt School of Dental Medicine


A new program at the Texas Tech Dental Oral Health Clinic will help screen for diabetes in dental patients, thanks to an $114,944 grant from the Paso del Norte Health Foundation.


The new initiative, announced Thursday, March 30, looks to improve health care access across our Borderplex by helping prevent diabetes and empowering screened residents with appropriate resources. The program debuted in February 2023.


KVIA anchor Stephanie Valle  receives a diabetes test from a Hunt School of Dental Medicine student.
KVIA anchor Stephanie Valle receives a diabetes test.

Diabetes is a serious condition that can lead to heart disease, chronic kidney disease, nerve damage, and problems with feet, oral health, vision, hearing, and mental health.


March was a fitting time for the announcement, as National Nutrition Month and World Oral Health Day are observed throughout the month.


There is a well-documented connection between diabetes and oral health. A dentist is often the first health care provider to suspect if a patient has diabetes because dental visits can be more frequent than physician visits. They can also provide an opportunity for diabetes screenings and medical referrals for diabetes care.


“There’s a bilateral relationship between diabetes and oral health. Diabetes causes gum disease and someone with gum disease cannot control their blood glucose levels, worsening their diabetes.


When a patient has gum disease in an otherwise clean mouth, then we suspect the patient might have diabetes,” said Ana Karina Mascarenhas, B.D.S., M.P.H., Dr.P.H., FDS RCPS (Glasg), associate dean at the Hunt School of Dental Medicine who crafted the initiative. “With this program we’re teaching our dental students to screen their patients for diabetes.”


The program, called “Diabetes and the Dentist: Early Diabetes Detection, Education and Referral,” is a diabetes early-detection program at the Texas Tech Dental Oral Health Clinic. Patients are provided an American Diabetes Association risk test and if they receive a score of 5 or higher, an HbA1c diagnostic test (blood test) is administered during their initial oral health assessment as a frontline screening method.


The Hunt School of Dental Medicine and Paso del Norte Health Foundation have been an impactful and powerful team in our Borderplex over the years, tackling oral health disparities in the community.
The Hunt School of Dental Medicine and Paso del Norte Health Foundation have been an impactful and powerful team in our Borderplex over the years, tackling oral health disparities in the community.

Once a patient has been determined to be at risk for diabetes, promotores (community health workers) act as patient navigators to diabetes resources and connect patients to the appropriate health care professionals they have been referred to, including primary care physicians and endocrinologists.


“If a patient, when screened with the HbA1c test, is positive, they’re educated by dental students on lifestyle choices to prevent diabetes, such as healthy eating and increasing physical activity, then sent to their physician for further evaluation,” Dr. Mascarenhas said. “Promotores will assist in making these appointments and connecting the individual to resources available in El Paso for diabetics.”


The Paso del Norte Health Foundation initiative with the Hunt School of Dental Medicine to test for diabetes during dental visits is one of the few currently in the U.S.


Paso del Norte Health Foundation officials were in attendance during the announcement, along with Richard Black, D.D.S., dean of the Hunt School of Dental Medicine. Stephanie Valle, KVIA-ABC-7's main anchor, was tested for diabetes at the announcement to demonstrate how easy and quick the test is. Valle also happens to be a former orthodontics patient of Dr. Black.


As part of efforts to improve the accessibility of oral health care in the community, the Hunt School of Dental Medicine offers reduced-cost dental care in the Texas Tech Dental Oral Health Clinic.


The clinic is equipped with 145 treatment chairs where students work with faculty providers to deliver high-quality oral health care to Borderplex residents.


Since the Hunt School of Dental Medicine opened in 2021, students and staff have treated 1,500 patients in the clinic, providing over 7,100 hours of clinical care.


Diabetes is a prevalent condition in our region, with 94,000 adults, or 16.9% of adults, in El Paso County living with diabetes, compared to 12.6% in Texas and 10.6% in the U.S., according to the Texas Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. Hispanics are affected at a greater rate by diabetes, with 14.3% diagnosed or predicted to have Type 2 diabetes, and 50% more likely to die from diabetes compared to non-Hispanic whites, according to the American Diabetes Association.


Dr. Mascarenhas said the program was intentionally planned because of the higher prevalence of diabetes in Hispanics and throughout our community.


Students at the Texas Tech Dental Oral Health Clinic have started screening for diabetes and it's already making a difference.


A local patient, who went to the Texas Tech Dental Oral Health Clinic for a routine dental exam, participated in the diabetes screening recently. The result of their screening indicated they should take an A1C test, which showed a level of 5.7%.


A normal HbA1c level is below 5.7%, a level of 5.7% to 6.4% indicates prediabetes, and a level of 6.5% or more indicates diabetes. Within the 5.7% to 6.4% prediabetes range, the higher your HbA1c, the greater your risk is for developing Type 2 diabetes.


The patient now has the information they need to go back to their primary care physician for further diagnosis and additional help to lower their HbA1c.



Jessica A. Chacon, Ph.D., TTUHSC El Paso assistant professor and director of Promotores de Salud, is collaborating on the project. Deborah J. Clegg, Ph.D., TTUHSC El Paso vice president for research, provided training and diabetes education to Hunt School of Dental Medicine students.


Michael Kelly, Ph.D., Vice President of Programs for the Paso del Norte Health Foundation, said his approach to health promotion and disease prevention is to promote knowledge, support and opportunity for people to make improvements in their lives and their health, and this program does just that.


“The Paso del Norte Health Foundation supports this project because it addresses detecting diabetes in a novel manner and, I think, a very scalable manner for other places,” Dr. Kelly said. “What we're learning here may be taken into the community. We have more people with diabetes, and we have more people sick with diabetes and this doesn't seem to be improving on its own. This is why projects like this are just so important.”


 
 

YOU CAN HELP


At TTUHSC El Paso, we are committed to growing our own health care heroes and changing the state of health care in our Borderplex. For more information about how you can help, please contact andrea.tawney@ttuhsc.edu or craig.holden@ttuhsc.edu or visit ttuhscep.edu/elpaso/ia/giving/.

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