Q&A: How an Oral Medicine Specialist Can Treat Your Oral Lesions and Orofacial Pain

Friday, November 15, 2019
Q&A: How an Oral Medicine Specialist Can Treat Your Oral Lesions and Orofacial Pain
“An Oral Medicine Specialist Must Take a Wide Range of Factors into Account to Create an Effective Diagnosis and Manage Each Patient’s Unique Conditions.”

— Dr. Katherine France

Have you ever wondered how oral medicine fits into the field of dentistry?

We recently had the chance to sit down with Dr. Katherine France, an oral medicine specialist at Penn Dental Family Practice. We discussed what makes oral medicine different from other specialties, new trends in the field, and her story– how Dr. France came to PDFP and what she loves about being here.

Read on for Dr. France’s perspective on this unique specialty and its role in health care!

Q: Can you tell me a little about your background?

A: I first came to Penn Dental as a student. I came to dental school after finishing a demanding liberal arts education that provided a broad base in science and deep knowledge and analytical abilities across a variety of fields. This academic preparation allowed me to thrive both in dental school and in my work in oral medicine. In fact, part of my interest in oral medicine, which involves diagnosis and management of a full scope of mucosal diseases and pain conditions affecting the head and neck, stems from my liberal arts education – I am interested in intellectual challenges and enjoy constantly pushing myself to learn new things.

I didn’t come across oral medicine until I was a dental student. I was introduced to the specialty through classes but I really learned what makes oral medicine so unique through the process of shadowing and speaking to mentors, who I am now lucky to call my colleagues.

After graduating from dental school, I completed my residency at Penn and then stayed on as a faculty member. I feel very fortunate to be part of such an extraordinary institution and enjoy learning from my colleagues and patients.

Q: What motivated you to pursue dentistry and, in particular, your specialty?

A: I arrived at dentistry after exploring several different careers. I was interested in science and knew that I enjoyed working with people, so I looked at options that would allow me to combine those two things.

I came to realize that I had always liked going to the dentist and thought that what they did was interesting. For me, dentistry offered a way to help people while solving scientific problems at the same time. Plus, I was encouraged that all the dentists I spoke with affirmed their love for what they do and feel inspired to go to work each day.

Each specialty in the field has its own appeal, but to me, oral medicine is where the most interesting questions in dentistry arise. We encounter many diagnostic and treatment challenges because every patient is different. An oral medicine specialist must take a wide range of factors into account to create an effective treatment plan for each patient.

Oftentimes, oral medicine specialists are the ones to make a diagnosis after the patient has seen multiple providers without getting an adequate answer. Even with a diagnosis, treatment planning often isn’t straightforward. With facial pain cases, for example, people may respond very differently to the same medications. There is no one solution that will work for everyone.

However, once I’m able to find an approach that helps a particular patient, that can make a big impact on the patient’s physical comfort, lifestyle, and their psychological well-being. Receiving the right diagnosis after having seen as many as 15 different health care providers comes as a great relief to patients and is very fulfilling.

Q: For readers who might not be familiar with oral medicine, what makes this different from other dental specialties?

Young woman with dark brown hair winces while holding jaw in pain.A: What we do can be thought of as the non-surgical side of oral surgery; we treat different types of facial pain, oral lesions, and medically-related disorders of the mouth. This can include, for example, patients with autoimmune diseases that may manifest in the mouth, like salivary gland dysfunction or oral lesions.

The part of the specialty devoted to treating pain can be related to clenching and grinding or neuropathic pain caused by abnormal signaling.

Oral medicine doctors also provide long-term care for patients who have had cancer of the oral and maxillofacial regions. There are oral medicine specialists that focus on just one of these areas, but I currently see the full range of conditions involving medicine and dentistry.

Q: How have you seen your specialty change since you began practicing oral medicine?

A: We’re seeing exciting things on the horizon for oral medicine. I’m hoping that there will be an increased awareness and appreciation of the specialty over time. This year, we’re applying for the National Commission on Recognition of Dental Specialties and Certifying Boards at the American Dental Association to recognize oral medicine as a specialty. If we are awarded specialty recognition, this will help with understanding and awareness of the services we can provide and I believe it will help more patients obtain adequate care.

There’s a greater awareness of our ability to treat patients and a push among the new generation of providers toward private practice care nationwide. I think this trend will increase the visibility of oral medicine, making more people aware that they don’t have to keep living with pain and dysfunction. More patients are self-scheduling without a referral after having learned about oral medicine through the internet or in conversations with friends. To me, this shows that patients are finding solutions in oral medicine that they aren’t getting elsewhere.

Q: What is your favorite part of your work at Penn Dental Family Practice?

A: I’m very happy when I can help someone who has been struggling. For example, if someone is experiencing orofacial pain, I may not be able to make the pain go away completely, but I can alleviate it. That’s a big deal for people who have been struggling for a long time.

I love it when you can see a real change in a patient’s optimism and happiness. Maybe it’s because we were able to bring down their pain significantly, or we performed a biopsy that reassured the patient that a lesion wasn’t cancerous. The range of solutions is as wide as the number of patients we see, but it is wonderful to have a chance to help someone with something that has been difficult for them.

Q: What made you choose to stay at Penn Dental rather than going to practice somewhere else?

A: I knew I wanted to teach, which was a big part of it. Oral medicine has been primarily an academic specialty for a long time and I wanted to keep a foot planted in that world. I was also interested in doing direct patient care. It was important to me to be able to keep treating patients while I was teaching. At Penn Dental Family Practice, I do general dentistry as well as oral medicine.

Q: What makes Penn Dental unique?

A: Part of what makes the institution unique is its connection with the University of Pennsylvania. There’s collaboration with colleagues across disciplines, which leads to better care, education, and research. At PDFP, we’re constantly learning and benefiting from others’ expertise. And of course, it’s very helpful to have access to top specialists from so many fields.

Q: How would potential patients know they need to seek out treatment from an oral medicine specialist? Before, you said people come through doctor referrals as well as self-education?

A: Every once in a while you see a patient who says “I’m sure I have something,” but what they’re experiencing is completely normal. Most of the time though, people arrive because of a change or persistent concern in the orofacial region. It may take the form of orofacial pain, dry mouth, or an oral lesion. The problem manifests as something that doesn’t feel normal and perhaps didn’t get resolved at the dentist. That’s usually when they’ll visit an oral medicine doctor to see if the problem can be better addressed.

Q: What is something fun about you that your patients might not know?

A: I enjoy traveling. I’m often on the road on the weekend and like to call it Food Tourism– whether I’m checking out restaurants, coffee shops, or brunch places. It might be Philadelphia or anywhere else in the world. Today, I’m going to Elixir Coffee in downtown Philadelphia. Wednesdays are a day when I get to make my own schedule and I absolutely love getting to set up in a coffee shop and catch up on different projects. Sometimes a change of location makes it easier to get work done!

Q: What final advice or words of wisdom would you offer to readers?

A: I would tell readers not to be afraid of dentists. Since entering the field, I’ve often thought about how dental phobia affects people. I try to address it individually with all my patients since it can be a serious barrier to accessing dental care. At Penn Dental Family Practice, we encourage patients to come in and give us the chance to provide them with proper care.

Oral Medicine at Penn Dental Family Practice

Wondering whether oral medicine could help you or a family member? Penn Dental Family Practice is one of the only providers of oral medicine in the Philadelphia area. Our specialists in oral medicine are instructors at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine, where they train the next generation of leading providers. We offer the diagnosis and management of a wide range of oral conditions, including oral mucosal problems, facial pain, oral lesions, and medically related disorders of the mouth.

If you’ve been worried about an oral problem that remains undiagnosed, we encourage you to come visit us for a consultation. To make an appointment with a specialist in our oral medicine department, please call us at 215-898-7337.