New Coursera Offering From Penn Explores Ties Between Medicine and Dentistry

By Erica Andersen

Dentists and physicians practice health care from different perspectives, however, the oral and general health of their patients are of primary importance to both types of providers. A new online course taught by University of Pennsylvania faculty seeks to highlight the inextricable connections between the two professions.

The course, offered on the Coursera online educational platform, eschews a traditional lecture format in favor of a series of interviews with Penn physicians conducted by Uri Hangorsky, clinical professor of periodontics and associate dean for student life at Penn’s School of Dental Medicine. Specialists in seven areas of medicine, including dermatology, oncology and pain management, highlight the ways in which oral health and general health influence each other. The course, “The Oral Cavity -- Portal to Health and Disease,” is open for enrollment on Coursera’s website this week.


“It has become increasingly clear that the oral cavity is intimately tied to the overall health of the human body,” Hangorsky said. Thomas Sollecito, chair and professor of oral medicine and Eric Stoopler, an associate professor of oral medicine, both of whom have appointments in Penn Dental Medicine as well as Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, also provide commentary in the course videos.

“When I went to school many years ago, the traditional wisdom was that general health can influence the health of the oral cavity,” Hangorsky said. “But we never explored how the oral cavity influences general health to the extent that we now know it does. In this course, we summarize all the recent advances and highlight the relationship between different medical specialties and oral health.”

“For example, untreated periodontal disease can exacerbate heart disease,” Hangorsky said. “We also knew that if a person has diabetes, he or she is much more susceptible to abscesses, but we didn’t know that periodontal disease can worsen diabetes.”

“In the course, we talk to a dermatologist who specializes in autoimmune blistering diseases, which often appear both on the skin and in the oral cavity,” added Katherine France, a teaching assistant. “We discuss how the care of those patients involves both the dermatology and oral medicine departments.”

An earlier online course by Penn Dental Medicine, “Introduction to Dental Medicine,” was well received.

“We were able to reach almost 18,000 people in 100 countries,” said Hangorsky. “That's more students than I've taught in my entire career.”

That course provides an overview of dentistry and continues to be offered on a rolling basis. The new course will also be rolling.

France, a Penn-trained dentist and oral-medicine resident, will serve as the teaching assistant for both courses. She provides a video introduction to each interview and will answer questions in discussion boards and administer tests.

Coursera learners can take the courses, including exams and quizzes, for free but must pay a fee if they wish to receive a certificate documenting their achievement. There is no difference in the course material or teaching style between the two options.

Hangorsky credits the ability to bring this course to fruition to Sollecito and Stoopler’s positions in the University of Pennsylvania Health System and close working relationship with many Penn Medicine specialists.

“It's really a tribute to Penn’s oral medicine department that this course is even possible,” Hangorsky said. “We're fortunate because many schools don't have an oral medicine department, especially one that is so well integrated into a University Health System.”

Each week’s session will feature a different specialist. Veena Graff, assistant professor of clinical anesthesiology and critical care, will discuss pain management. Craig Wynne, an associate professor of clinical medicine in the Division of Internal Medicine, will focus on diabetes. Caroline Kim, an associate professor of clinical medicine in the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism, will discuss thyroid cancer and osteoporosis. Frank Silvestry, an associate professor of medicine in the Cardiovascular Division, will talk about cardiology. Aimee Payne, the Albert M. Kligman Associate Professor of Dermatology, will discuss various skin conditions that also appear in the oral cavity. David Porter, director of blood and marrow transplantation and the Jodi Fisher Horowitz Professor in Leukemia Care Excellence, will review characteristics and management of blood and bone marrow cancers. Jason Newman, co-director of the Cranial Base Center and director of head and neck surgery at Pennsylvania Hospital, will describe certain kinds of head and neck cancer.The interview format allows specialists to speak from their own perspectives and share their interests in a more free-flowing conversation.

“I think in an interview session, the audience feels much more part of the discussion than in a lecture,” Hangorsky said.

The course’s organizers see value in the material for a variety of people at different educational levels.

“I think one of the beautiful things about an online course is that it can be accessed by anyone,” France said, “including an undergraduate student thinking about a career in potentially either medicine or dentistry, a knowledgeable patient who's just curious or an employee at a dentist's office who's worked around teeth their whole life but wants further medical training.”

Even dentists and other medical professionals may find that they learn something new about the relationship between the oral cavity and the rest of the body.

 “This course emphasizes how important the oral cavity is,” France said. “It’s important to be aware of it, take care of it and be vigilant.”