Heart Group Builds Partnership Around Early Disease Detection

AHA’s initiative builds on research that find that oral-health issues can signal risks for diabetes, stroke, and other ailments.

The American Heart Association has launched a partnership with Delta Dental to support early detection of heart disease.

Healthy Hearts, Healthy Smiles, an initiative announced last month, leverages the ability of dentists’ offices to notice signs of heart disease; for instance, chronic gum inflammation can be associated with coronary artery disease, stroke, and diabetes. That knowledge, combined with the fact that fewer Americans have paid regular visits to primary-care doctors since the pandemic, encouraged the association to pursue the program. According to a release regarding the program, approximately 27 million patients visit a dentist annually but not another physician.

“We are constantly thinking about how we can get further upstream into primary care settings to prevent heart disease and prevent the progression of diseases,” said Juliana Crawford, National Vice President of Consumer Health Solutions at AHA. “Dentists are uniquely positioned—they are already doing high blood pressure screenings, or at least taking a reading. But are they talking to a patient about it, or not? They’re probably not, but they could, and it wouldn’t be difficult.”

Under the partnership agreement, AHA is using its research around oral health and heart disease to develop straightforward protocols that dental professionals can use in their offices. Delta Dental will use those protocols in five test communities. 

According to AHA, approximately 27 million patients visit a dentist annually but not another physician.

Selecting the five test markets involved including diverse communities, with an eye toward health-equity issues in the United States, identifying places where many residents are less likely to have or visit a primary-care doctor. “We want to have geographic diversity, and both of our organizations are highly focused on health equity,” Crawford said. “So we want to start where we’ve seen populations that probably are not accessing primary care on a regular basis, with a strong geographic distribution. We also want to make sure we’re not missing rural settings too.”

The partnership, which was first developed in early 2023, is slated to run for four years, Crawford said. The first two years will focus on the test markets, with plans to reassess after that pilot.  

“It’s really important for us and our collaborators to understand that if you’re trying to drive change at this scale, one year is not going to work,” she said. “Four years is a healthy commitment, because we imagine at the end of four years, we’re going to understand what works and we’re going have the package to scale.”

By tracking doctor referrals and other metrics, AHA will determine if it wants to expand the initiative to other markets. But much of the work in the initiative’s early days will be determining what dental-office protocols make sense. “In the early days, process metrics are going to rule the day,” she said. “But as we move on, I think it’s going to focus on referrals and the follow-through on referrals. Did patients actually move forward and end up in primary care? Those are the sorts of things that show it’s really working and we’re moving the needle—if people take action.”

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