My research applies social and behavioral science to dentistry. To guide my work, I draw on training in experimental psychopathology, behavioral genetics, clinical health psychology, public health, and translational science. Three specific areas of scientific inquiry currently characterize my multilevel, transdisciplinary program of research.
First, a primary focus is the psychological processes involved in dental/orofacial pain and symptom perception, dental treatment-seeking behavior, oral health behavior, and health outcomes. Particular attention is paid to fear and anxiety, oral health attitudes/values, health communication, and the role of environment. For instance, the complex interaction of pain, fear, and avoidance behavior is a central component of my work. I am interested in the etiology of dental treatment avoidance, understanding the mechanisms—especially pain- and fear-related—responsible for its development and maintenance. Likewise, I am interested in how the social environment, including interactions with healthcare providers, influences dental care avoidance and oral health behavior. To elucidate such mechanisms, and working under a biopsychosocial framework, I have incorporated behavioral learning theory, behavioral genetics, relevant biomarkers, and population-level statistical analyses into my research. Current work allows me to explore these research interests within a dental public health framework and specifically with pediatric patients.
A second focus is the translation of the findings of my epidemiological and experimental psychopathology work to clinical settings, with the aim of improving clinical encounters across a range of settings and patient diversity. That is, I am interested in applying what we know about how people become avoidant of dental and other healthcare to the prevention and amelioration of that avoidance. For example, theory-driven, evidence-based interventions that target dental care-related fear and anxiety have the potential to increase utilization. To that end, my research involves developing and assessing the efficacy and effectiveness of novel behavioral interventions for dental care avoidance, often targeting fear/anxiety, pain management, and oral health values.
A third focus is the dissemination of (a) knowledge about the psychological processes that impact how dental patients perceive their pain/symptoms and utilize care, and (b) evidence-based strategies that can be used to reduce psychosocial barriers to treatment utilization and to make the patient experience more comfortable and effective, and implementation of those strategies. Equipping dental professionals and students with this information is one important way to ensure that research in this area is utilized readily and widely. Clinical psychologists are in a unique position to impact dentistry by “giving away” what we know to dental professionals who can apply it to standard practice for broadest reach. With increased emphasis placed on preventive care in the United States and abroad, this strategy is timely and necessary. As such, some of my work is devoted to topics like health communication and Motivational Interviewing, the effective promotion of health behavior change, and the provider-patient relationship; I am interested in the models of training utilized in medical, dental, and dental hygiene education to transmit knowledge on these topics.
Among other sources, my research has been enriched and supported by the West Virginia University Foundation Distinguished Doctoral Scholarship, the Research Training Program in the Behavioral and Biomedical Sciences (NIH/NIGMS T32) at West Virginia University, and by a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) for Individual Predoctoral Fellows (NIH/NIDCR F31). This research would not be possible without collaborators at the University of Washington, the University of Pittsburgh, West Virginia University, and the Center for Oral Health Research in Appalachia. My work has been recognized by the Association for Psychological Science, the Hinman Student Research Symposium, the International Association for Dental Research, the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, and the NIH Pain Consortium. Visit the Publications and Presentations section of the website to see representative work, or download my CV for a chronology of my research.