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Chase Phillips poses in front of rows of magazines. [View Image] Chase Phillips, a third-year student in the VCU School of Dentistry, is pursuing a research project borne out of his interest in the comfort of dental patients. (Courtesy photo)

Researching the needs of LGBT dental patients

While previous research has focused on the perspectives of dental students and practitioners, “little has been done on the perspective of the LGBT community.” VCU’s Chase Phillips is changing that.

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When Chase Phillips was a child, his dentist was also a close family friend. Phillips was struck by how warm and inviting she made her office for patients. It was, he said, “a safe space.” Years later, those memories would be part of what inspired Phillips to pursue a career in dentistry.

“I always looked forward to going to the dentist when I was growing up, and I want to emulate that for others,” Phillips said.

Phillips is now a third-year student in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry, and he’s pursuing a research project, “Identifying Oral Health Priorities, Use of Services, and Inclusive Understanding of Oral Health Providers among the LGBT Community,” that was borne out of his interest in the comfort of patients. Phillips chose to explore the topic after realizing that no previous research had detailed the viewpoints of LGBT patients about the dental care experience.

“As a member of the LGBT community myself, I know how important it is to feel safe in any kind of medical environment,” Phillips said. “Going in can be stressful for anyone, but then having to worry on top of that if there might be another issue that arises based on your sexuality can make it even more stressful. Having experienced what my own dentist office was like and how safe I felt, I wanted to do research looking into how I could help expand that atmosphere to other oral health offices.”

Research has long interested Phillips, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology at the College of William and Mary and Villanova University and who worked in special education before deciding to attend dental school. As an undergraduate and graduate psychology student, Phillips conducted research related to access to health care among minority communities. He chose the VCU School of Dentistry in part for its strong student research culture.

When Phillips took a dental research elective at VCU, Tegwyn Brickhouse, D.D.S., Ph.D., spoke to the class about oral health equity research opportunities. Brickhouse is the chair of the Department of Dental Public Health and Policy and directs both the Oral Health Services Research Core in the Philips Institute for Oral Health Research and the Oral Health in Childhood and Adolescence core in the Institute for Inclusion, Inquiry and Innovation. Brickhouse’s presentation aligned with Phillips’ interest in health equity and he worked with her to identify a research path he could pursue. 

“I could see that he was really passionate about the LGBT community and he understood that there are some barriers and unanswered questions about providing the LGBT community access to optimal oral health,” Brickhouse said.

Having experienced what my own dentist office was like and how safe I felt, I wanted to do research looking into how I could help expand that atmosphere to other oral health offices.

Phillips said previous dental research on LGBT topics focused on the perspectives of dental students and practitioners, but “very little has been done on the perspective of the LGBT community itself on their own oral health care.” Phillips’ project will combine individual interviews of stakeholders in the LGBT community with a broader survey of the community using themes developed from the interviews — a mixed-method approach that Brickhouse said promises to yield valuable qualitative and quantitative results from the community’s perspective. Philips was awarded a Student Research Fellowship from the American Association for Dental Research for the project.

Phillips said initial interviews for the project have pointed to an array of possible challenges, ranging from cost to medical anxiety and fear of discrimination. Brickhouse noted that oral health plays an integral role in overall health, but a lack of access for vulnerable populations leads to higher risk for a range of health issues, making it crucial to thoroughly understand any barriers to care.

Phillips said gathering community-based research on the topic will not only help educate oral health professionals but will identify vital needs of the LGBT community. The existence of research also helps to secure funding for programs that address those identified needs, he said. 

“It’s very important to clearly understand these issues in order to make sure that we address them,” Phillips said. 

Brickhouse said Phillips has proven adept at identifying the gaps in existing research and developing a plan and best practices to address those gaps. 

“He’s been phenomenal,” she said. 

For Phillips, it’s natural to use research to dig into real-world issues and develop solutions that can have an enduring impact. Research’s appeal stems from its potential to affect the lives of others, he said. 

“I see it as coming at dentistry from two different perspectives,” Phillips said. “There’s the one-on-one perspective where you’re working with patients and you can see that impact on individual lives, and there’s also the research perspective where you can make a more indirect impact but one that is really pervasive. That’s what really attracts me to it.” 

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