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How ‘Intercollaborative Care’ Puts Patients First

Dr. Sridevi Ponnala is holistically serving low-income and high-risk populations in parts of California’s Bay Area where access to preventive care is hard to find.

Dr. Sridevi Ponnala aims to provide intercollaborative care — spanning medical, dental and behavioral health.

Dr. Sridevi Ponnala has served as dental director at Tiburcio Vasquez Health Center in the Bay Area of California for the last 10 years. Educated and trained as a dentist in India, Ponnala earned her second DDS degree from UCSF in 2004 to be able to practice here and has been on a mission since to serve populations who are most in need of health care. In her decade at Tiburcio Vasquez, she’s grown the federally qualified health center from two sites to six and now sees more than 22,000 patients each year through what she calls “intercollaborative care” — where medical, dental and behavior treatments are seamless. Across the industry, this is called collaborative care, integrated care, interprofessional practice and coordinated care, among other names depending on the context. Ponnala says it’s that integration that must take shape nationwide in order to truly care for patients’ oral and overall health. 

Dr. Sridevi Ponnala takes pride in the ‘intercollaborative care’ her Bay Area health center delivers to low-income communities who need it.

How does Tiburcio Vasquez Health Center work to integrate dental care?

We aim to provide what we call intercollaborative care — spanning medical, dental and behavioral health — for all our patients. One of our practices in Hayward is truly integrated: there are two dental chairs that sit directly between medical and behavioral health chairs. That way, patients are literally treated holistically. It’s unique for the area, and opening it is something I take great pride in. 

Technologically speaking, incompatible records across disciplines is a major barrier to integration. We upgraded to health records software that also has a dental portion, so now it’s very easy to refer people from medical to dental. If a pregnant or pediatric patient comes in, they’ll be referred to dental automatically. And it’s easier now for me as a dentist to track my patients’ medical histories and labs. Dentistry has for so long existed in a silo — like the head isn’t a part of the body or something! But we’re working to make our practices patient-centered medical homes.

One of your health centers is located in a firehouse. How did that come to be? 

We have a medical clinic on the fire station’s grounds in Hayward, yes! It’s in a very vulnerable part of the city called Jackson Triangle, which is a very low-income, high-risk area where patients don’t have access to care. So someone will call 911 for anything — even for a small cut — and that call to run the fire team out costs the county and city overhead each time. So we worked with the city to establish the Firehouse Clinic to have a place that’s committed to the community, so people can show up with any small thing, including dental problems. We’ve become great friends with the firefighters along the way, too, creating a place where the patient is our focus.

Is there a patient who’s stood out to you in your years at Tiburcio Vasquez?

One of our patients came from a Middle Eastern country, and she was not very fluent in English. She had been sick at the county hospital and was referred to one of our clinics because she had some dental infections. Once she came in, we treated her and I referred her to the medical side. It turns out she was a diabetic patient and, because of the language barriers, she didn’t know how to manage her medications or even how to find foods that were close to what she ate in her home country. There was a lot of change for her but seemingly not a lot of support. She was able to connect with both our primary care physician and a nutritionist after coming in for dental care. When she came in the third or fourth time, she asked to hug me and I asked if everything was OK. She told me, “I feel like I’m being treated as a human for the first time since coming to this country.”

Read more stories about Preventists changing their communities and learn more about the future of oral health at Preventistry.org.