The medical professionals of Minnesota are paving the way, one clinic at a time, for a new nationwide healthcare integration for patients. A team, including Erin Westfall, DO, assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Minnesota Medical School, are redefining whole-person health by including oral care into their regular healthcare practices—two medical needs historically kept separate.

“But now, we are learning that oral health is whole-person health and poor dental care has significant implications for chronic disease later on, such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease,” Dr. Westfall said. “These diseases are all correlated with poor dental health, and yet, when we look at rural and underserved populations, they really have poor access to dental care.”

With new needs to be met in order to help these communities, Dr. Westfall and her team are merging dental and medical healthcare under one roof. She pioneered this effort, introducing Mankato to one of Minnesota’s first fully integrated medical-dental clinic.

“It all began with the labor of love,” Dr. Westfall said.

Dr. Westfall knew applying fluoride varnish to the teeth of young children under the age of five has significant outcomes and can even reduce potential chronic disease early on. In 2014, Dr. Westfall and her team began integrating fluoride varnish, risk assessments and oral health evaluations into their primary healthcare clinic.

“Implementing additional oral care really took off. However, our goal was to not only apply fluoride varnish and provide education on oral health, but to refer someone to a dental home, because we knew we couldn’t meet all of their oral health needs in our primary care clinic,” Dr. Westfall said. “However, parents would come back and explain to us that their dentists wouldn’t see their children under the age of three or they couldn’t find a dentist that took their insurance. So, we realized this was a problem, and we needed to do something more.”

Around the same time, Dr. Westfall had joined the Early Childhood Dental Network in the Southwest region of Minnesota and heard again about the lack of access to dental care for children between infancy and age five.

“A colleague and I came up with a medical and dental integration clinic as a possible solution,” Dr. Westfall said.

That solution, she felt, was bringing dental teams into her primary care clinic through a partnership with the Minnesota State University Dental Program and generous funding from the Mankato Area Foundation and Delta Dental of Minnesota. Together, they created a collaborative agreement that would have their oral health rotation embedded within the ambulatory pediatrics clinic. 

“This allowed us to develop workflows, a proof of concept, to see if this is something sustainable and what patients need,” Dr. Westfall said. 

The integrated clinic opened in August 2019 and became fully staffed two months later in October. Dr. Westfall and her team have treated more than 100 patients since then, and the numbers continue to grow.

“The health of the mouth is a reflection of the health of the body,” Dr. Westfall said. “We have a saying that goes, ‘Do today’s work today’ and there is no better way to do this than through healthcare integration.”

Read more about how the clinic came to be by visiting the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health’s website.