School of Biomedical Informatics alumnus and faculty receive $3.9M NIH grant to fund dental 'adverse-event' database

Published February 05, 2013 by Rolando Garcia


Most visits to the dentist have positive outcomes – but with millions of patients visiting thousands of practitioners each year – complications and adverse events are bound to occur. 

"Identifying the adverse events most commonly affecting patients is a first step toward preventing them," said Muhammad Walji, PhD, UTHealth School of Biomedical Informatics alumnus and director of informatics at The University of Texas School of Dentistry at Houston. 

That's why Walji and colleagues at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, including associate professor Elsbeth Kalendarian, DDS, MPH and instructor Rachel Ramoni, DMD, are leading a new project to better understand and document patient safety issues by mining millions of electronic dental patient records and building a database of such events that can be used to improve patient safety. 

To fund the project, Walji and his team received a $3.9 million, five-year grant from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, a division of the National Institutes of Health.

Muhammad F. Walji, PhD

Muhammad Walji, PhD

Other members of his team include School of Dentistry professor and director of quality assurance Veronique Delattre, DDS; SBMI professor and interim dean Jiajie Zhang, PhD, and associate professor Amy FranklinPhD, also of SBMI. Other academic partners, such as dentistry schools at the University of California at San Francisco and Oregon Health and Science University, as well as a group of dental providers throughout the country, are also participating. 

"Dentistry can learn from the patient safety and quality assurance improvements underway in medicine intended to reduce medical errors," Walji said.  “People are concerned about the quality of dental care, and we are pleased that through this grant we can begin gathering information for analysis.” 

In the September 2012 issue of the Journal of the American Dental Association, Walji and others co-authored a guest editorial calling for dentistry to undertake a comprehensive initiative to improve patient safety, beginning with collecting data on the most pressing safety risks.  

"This collection of dental schools and private practitioners will give the researchers access to potentially millions of dental records," Walji said. 

First, the team will need to devise a working definition of adverse events and criteria for which incidents qualify. This would include those considered as unforeseen complications caused by treatment.

Then, researchers must develop triggers – such as multiple visits in a short period – that will electronically flag patient records most likely to contain adverse events. Identifying information will be scrubbed so that patient privacy is not compromised. 

The project’s aim is twofold: to create a framework for classifying and documenting adverse events in dentistry, and also to build a searchable data repository of such events.

"Having such a database will allow researchers to pinpoint incident patterns, identify underlying causes and improve patient safety," Walji said.