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Dentists Encouraged to Counsel Domestic Violence Victims

University of Arizona College of Medicine Phoenix

The inside of our mouths can give away clues about injuries, both past and present. And that puts dentists in a unique position to spot potential cases of domestic violence. Now, a dental student from Arizona has just published a scientific paper - in collaboration with the University of Arizona’s College of Medicine - to help train dentists to identify and counsel patients who show signs of domestic abuse.

Tim Ellis, of Midwestern University in Glendale, is the lead author of the study. He spoke with KNAU’s Steve Shadley.

TE: “Dentists are important to combat domestic violence because they are experts in the patient’s facial anatomy and they also have an interesting with their patients at they tend to see them every six months and so these relationships tend to be personal over time than they maybe over time with a primary care physician. But, with the expertise a dentist may have obtained through their education they may be more apt to identify certain markers as opposed to a physician who is focused on the whole body and not just the face and the oral cavity.”

SS: “I see and just give us an idea of what kind of markers, these are bio markers I understand, give us an idea of what dentists might find in cases of domestic violence…”

TE: “So, things like maybe a fractured tooth or a bruising pattern in the palette of your mouth…or something to that effect…or like bruising in the cheeks. Another one that comes to mind…especially prevalent in child abuse…for example if a child were to be struck across the face…it might tear a labiel frentum…which is the part that connects the lip to the gum…”

SS: “So, what would be your best advice, and I know this is an academic exercise that we’re talking about, but what would be your advice to an oral hygienist or a dentist if they do find signs of domestic violence, what should they do with the patient?”

TE: “If a dentist or oral hygienist sees any kinds of these symptoms, they should certainly start the conversation in a very respectful way…that way we can start to build an avenue to possible resources that can help these patients and elevate them out of their possible circumstances…”

SS: “Okay, so it sounds like you are not necessarily saying the dentist has to hop on the phone and call authorities and notify them about what they suspect to be evidence of domestic violence…”

TE: “No…certainly in an adult patient a dentist is not obligated to do such things. However, if it is a child, a dentist is required by law to contact authorities immediately if any violence has been suspected. Whether you are a child or you are an adult, if you are a dentist or a health care professional, you should be providing all of the resources to your patient. You shouldn’t just be focusing on cleaning somebody’s teeth. If you do see these markers, its similar to an oral cancer, where you’re obligated to screen for oral cancer…why can’t we also screen for domestic violence?”

SS: “Tim Ellis, thanks so much for talking to me today…” TE: “Thank you so much Steve, I appreciate it…”

That was KNAU’s Steve Shadley speaking with Glendale dental student Timothy Ellis. He was lead author of a Midwestern University/U of A study published in a health care periodical called the “Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment and Trauma.”

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