School of Social Work and Adams School of Dentistry Launch Virtual Services for Patients with Complex Needs


North Carolinians suffering from oral complications and potentially struggling to meet their basic needs now have access to the virtual services of medical specialists and social workers at UNC-Chapel Hill. Telehealth services, provided by the UNC Adams School of Dentistry and the UNC School of Social Work, were launched following the closure of dental clinics on campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The services ensure that all patients, especially those at higher risk of disease, continue to have access to an oral doctor without having to leave the comfort of their homes, said Jamie Burgess-Flowers, Clinical Assistant Professor of Social Work and Faculty of Dentistry. Currently, clinic appointments are made through Zoom meetings twice a week.

The new initiative is part of a growing movement towards integrated healthcare, in which doctors and mental health professionals work together as a team to diagnose and treat patients. This model is the backbone of the School of Social Work’s UNC-PrimeCare program, which rigorously prepares students to work in primary care settings as behavioral and mental health care specialists.

The project is also the second recent collaboration between the two schools. This fall, they will jointly launch i-STEP, or Interprofessional Substance Use Disorder Education and Training, an initiative to help social work and dental students learn more about substance use disorders.

As the Senior Social Worker for the Oral Telehealth Services Project, Burgess-Flowers works closely with her team to help patients navigate service needs, such as accessing housing options and transportation, as well as mental health and addiction counseling. These patients are often referred to a social worker after a team member has assessed their general health history.

“As part of this medical history, they are asked nine questions, such as, ‘In the past year, have you or anyone in your family had trouble paying for a phone, housing or the food ? “”, explained Burgess-Flowers. “If a patient says yes to any of these things or if they are positive for depression or anxiety, they should meet with me.”

Referred patients are assessed more closely to ensure that all of their needs are understood. In some cases, Burgess-Flowers offers brief counseling services or, if necessary, connects patients with mental health support in the community. She also manages the coordination of care, helping patients overcome other challenges, including financial issues.

“For example, this week we had a patient who is uninsured and needed a special mouthwash to manage her symptoms and who could not afford it,” he said. she declared. “So we talked to her about affordability options and asking for a drug assistance program, using coupons and creating a longer term plan to get into a more affordable pharmacy. . “

In the long term, it will be essential to continue to build bridges between the fields of social work and oral medicine to ensure that a patient’s needs are considered in a holistic way, she added.

“By the time many of these medically complex patients are attending their first visit with an oral specialist, they have seen many health care providers with no results,” she said. “They are often overwhelmed by their symptoms, have gaps in care and their psychosocial needs have been overlooked. Having a social worker there to assess and respond to those needs is a real change for this patient population and their dental team.


Perry A. Thomasson