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The Bridge Builder: Collaboration in Dental Medicine

How Dr. Easwar Natarajan, professor of oral pathology, fosters a collaborative environment

At the School of Dental Medicine, a collaborative environment is the driving force behind the School’s success in caring for patients and training the next generation of dentists.

Working diligently behind the scenes to foster collaboration in dental medicine is Dr. Easwar Natarajan, professor of oral pathology in the department of Oral and Maxillofacial Diagnostic Sciences.

“UConn’s School of Dental Medicine, from its inception, was founded on the principle of collaboration: with the medical and graduate schools,” said Natarajan. “UConn’s integrated environment attracted me to join the faculty in 2005. Our dental school’s mission is to graduate dentists who care for a whole patient, not just a tooth or filling.”

Natarajan continues, “Dentists routinely work with physicians and specialists to provide comprehensive dental care. A dentist who approaches patient care cognizant of a patient’s overall health and/or socio-economic status is best positioned to provide comprehensive and meaningful oral healthcare. A commitment to lifelong learning and evidence-based research enables dentists to stay up-to-date and provide contemporary care. This, consequently, leads to better patient education, compliance, and outcomes.”

With a dual appointment in the School of Dental Medicine and the pathology department in the School of Medicine, Natarajan spends his days teaching foundational predoctoral, postdoctoral, and graduate education courses in both the dental and medical schools, serving as a surgical pathologist, and providing specialty consultation services for patients with oral mucosal disorders, such as pre-cancer, cancer, and immune-related conditions.

“Personally, I think of my role as a bridge-builder. As a pathologist, clinician, educator, and scientist, I strive to help our students, patients, staff, and colleagues span gaps in their understanding of orofacial and systemic disease. Needless to say, it is a two-way bridge where we learn from each other.”

At the School of Dental Medicine, collaboration starts in the first year of dental school. The  School’s unique integrated “MDelta” curriculum allows both students in the schools of medicine and dental medicine to learn the foundations of biomedical sciences together. As co-director of the “COrE” block, Natarajan works with dental faculty, along with clinicians and scientists from otolaryngology, dermatology, ophthalmology, internal medicine, endocrinology, neurosciences, pediatrics, and geriatric medicine.

“We teach students to apply their knowledge of disease mechanisms in tackling simulated clinical challenges,” Natarajan says. “Together we provide a cohesive and integrated educational experience that trains complete health care providers.”

For Natarajan, collaboration extends to his role as a clinician. As part of the biopsy service team,  Natarajan works seamlessly with John Dempsey Hospital’s  anatomical pathology and histotechnology teams to process, assess, and diagnose biopsies sent to the lab.

“We pride ourselves on our efficiency and reliable service. The biopsy service provides us the perfect setting to build bridges and develop collaborative working relations with dentists and surgeons within and outside UConn. It has enabled me to work closely with our colleagues in anatomic pathology, head and neck oncology, hematopathology, and dermatopathology and collaborate on specific cases and/or educational initiatives within the School of Dental Medicine and School of Medicine.”

Natarajan reminds himself daily that to truly foster a collaborative environment, he makes sure to do several things: leave his ego at the door, listen to other perspectives, and treat people with kindness—the way he wants to also be treated.

‘We live in a wildly diverse world and work with people who may look, think, and approach life differently than we do,” says Natarajan. “I have learned, often the hard way, that listening to varying viewpoints, regardless of one’s beliefs, origins, cultural background, experience, age, or educational credentials, is critical to achieving collective goals. I will never hesitate to speak up and advocate for my beliefs but will always defer to the transformative power of a collaborative decision. That is what makes us a successful and functional syncytium.”