Assistant Surgeon General Visits UTHSC, Advocates Expanded View of Oral Health Profession

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Rear Admiral Timothy Ricks, the chief dental officer for the U. S. Public Health Service and Assistant Surgeon General, spoke to dental students at UTHSC on Monday. “This is the year of dentistry,” he said, pointing to increased attention to oral health as a key facet of overall general health. (Photos by Allen Gillespie/UTHSC)

Rear Admiral Timothy Ricks, DMD, MPH, the Chief Dental Officer of the U.S. Public Health Service and Assistant Surgeon General, Monday urged students in the UTHSC College of Dentistry to focus on oral health as integral to overall health across the lifespan.

“Part of my job is to impress on people the importance of oral health,” said Rear Admiral Ricks, who is the spokesperson on oral health for U.S. Surgeon General Vice Admiral Jerome M. Adams, MD. “It’s the idea of dental students thinking beyond the mouth and to the role oral health plays in general health.”

Rear Admiral Ricks has spent two days in Memphis, touring the UTHSC campus, meeting university leaders, learning about the College of Dentistry, and talking with students. He was invited to UTHSC by College of Dentistry Dean James C. Ragain, Jr., DDS, MS, PhD, FICD, FACD, and Orpheus Triplett, DDS, assistant dean of Community Oral Health and Outreach in the College of Dentistry. The three became acquainted at national dental meetings.

Rear Admiral Ricks is no stranger to the Memphis area, having done his undergraduate work at Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi, and received his dental degree from the University of Mississippi. He lives in Mount Juliet, Tennessee.

Rear Admiral Ricks, second from right, came to campus at the invitation of College of Dentistry leaders, Orpheus Triplett, DDS, assistant dean of Community Oral Health and Outreach, left, and Dean James C. Ragain, DDS, right. Chancellor Steve Schwab, MD, is second from left.

Speaking to third- and fourth-year dental students and College of Dentistry faculty, Rear Admiral Ricks previewed the 2020 Surgeon General’s Report, which is expected to be released next fall. A leader in its development, he said the report is only the second in history to include a focus on oral health. A previous call to action from the 2000 Surgeon General’s Report set the goals of promoting oral health, improving the quality of life, and eliminating health disparities.

While progress has been made toward those goals, more is needed, he said.

To that end, the 2020 report will focus attention on the social determinants of health as key in eliminating disparity in oral health care across the country.

Other focal points will include increased attention to the oral health needs of the aging population, the role of the oral health care provider in stemming the opioid crisis, dealing with the demands of the changing dental workforce, and expanding access to oral health care in rural areas.

“We’re not keeping up with the demand for dentists and dentists are going to urban areas,” where practices are more lucrative, he said. Reducing dental student debt could make rural practice more attractive, he said, pointing to various federal loan repayment programs and scholarships available to students.

Rear Admiral Ricks encouraged the students to think of themselves as part of one integrated health care team. Oral health providers should take responsibility for their patients’ general health. For example, he said dentists should talk to their patients about issues ranging from nutrition to the importance of vaccination.

Dean Ragain said the visit by Rear Admiral Ricks is an honor for the College of Dentistry. The dean said his message fits perfectly with the college’s expanded view of oral health care and its increased attention to reaching the underserved across Tennessee.