UNC Charlotte professor solicits help of dental professionals in identifying and addressing eating disorders

Nov. 7, 2002
Dental practitioners are often the first to observe early complications from the disorders.

According to Dr. Rita DeBate, the role of the dental practitioner in the early identification of eating disorders may sound unusual, but it is significant because dentists and dental hygienists are often the first health professionals to observe early overt medical and dental complications from the disorder.

DeBate, assistant professor of health behavior and administration at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, is using a $130,000 grant from National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research to increase the proportion of dental practitioners who assess patients for oral and physical symptoms of eating disorders and refer them appropriately.

"Research indicates that early detection and intervention play a key role in the recovery process of eating disorders," DeBate said. "The medical complications associated with eating disorders contribute to leading causes of mortality among female adolescents and young adults. If we can take a multidisciplinary approach to his health problem, we may be better able to prevent its onset in addition to getting people into early treatment."

DeBate chose to focus on dental practitioners for several reasons. Parents often do not take children to a doctor unless they are sick. Even during routine physicals, overweight children are viewed as more problematic than those who are of normal weight or slightly underweight. On the other hand, dental practitioners are usually the first in series of health practitioners to observe the overt health effects of disordered eating behaviors ? if they know what to look for. DeBate said such things like enamel erosion on the sides of the teeth where the tongue rests, accompanied by sensitivity to temperature, dry mouth and cracks on the sides of the mouth are some of the revealing signs.

DeBate is currently looking at dental practitioners' attitudes, skills and confidence in identifying signs, providing pre-restorative care and referring patients with eating disorders. She also will develop a continuing education curriculum at UNC Charlotte for dental practitioners that will be based on what she discovers in her assessment. Finally, she will implement and evaluate the continuing education curriculum.

According to DeBate, dental practitioners' help will be significant given the reduced quality of life and increased health care costs associated with eating disorders and associated medical and dental complications.