Integrating care

Dr John Ahern is a physician at the Cambridge Health Alliance, and faculty member at Harvard Medical School/Harvard School of Dental Medicine.

What led you to pursue a dual qualification in dentistry and medicine?

I trained in both dentistry and medicine at Trinity College Dublin. My first degree was in dentistry. After graduation I worked as house officer in the Dublin Dental University Hospital. This was a fantastic year. I gained an enormous amount of experience, mostly from my time spent working in the emergency department. We received a broad spectrum of referrals from all types of health professionals across the region. In particular, we treated a lot of trauma cases and minor surgical emergencies. I worked closely with staff from the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery throughout that year, many of whom had pursued dual qualification or worked in teams where dual qualification was common. I thoroughly enjoyed both the medical and dental aspects of patient care, so I too wanted to pursue dual qualification. It just felt like the right path for me and I am very happy with the decision I made.

What motivated you to obtain a master’s in public health, and did it change the way you think about what you do?

I was fortunate to be part of the first National Mouth Cancer Awareness Day during my house officer year. Ten years later, it still remains one of the best days of my professional life. It was a significant milestone for oral health in Ireland. It motivated me to learn more about population health medicine. I decided to pursue a part-time master’s degree in public health, through distance learning, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. During this time, I also continued to work as a dentist, in both hospital and primary care settings in Dublin. My training in public health certainly shaped my trajectory thereafter and I developed a broad interest in prevention, early intervention and integrated care.

You’ve since completed a PhD. How do you see your research being applied, especially in Ireland?

I did my PhD in population health medicine, public health and primary care. It was a mixed-methods PhD that focused on integrated care. My thesis explored the opportunities for, and barriers to, integrating oral health and primary care in Ireland. The studies revealed an absence of a culture of collaborative practice between dentistry and primary care in Ireland, and while opportunities were identified, there were a number of important challenges found, notably in the areas of education and policy reform.
What brought you to Harvard and what does your work there involve?
I did an internship at the World Health Organisation in 2014. During this time, I met with some faculty from the Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Dental Medicine. We discussed setting up a research collaboration that would focus on integrating oral health with medicine. They asked me to come and work with them, but I had one year remaining in medical school, so I had to turn down that opportunity at the time. However, later that year I applied for a Fulbright Scholarship and luckily the following spring I found out that I had been successful. Being introduced as a Fulbright Scholar in the United States captures everyone’s attention, which was particularly useful for my research interest as it was a relatively new idea and my work involved presenting to many different types of stakeholders across medical, dental and health policy sectors. After I finished my Fulbright, I returned to Dublin to complete my PhD and when I defended my PhD thesis, I was offered a postdoctoral fellowship to return to Harvard. I completed my fellowship shortly after the pandemic struck and I have been in a full-time clinical role as a resident physician in medicine with the Cambridge Health Alliance since then. I still have a part-time faculty appointment at Harvard so I continue to stay involved with academia.

How are you finding life in Boston?

Much as I miss home, I love Boston. Of course, the last months have been very different for all of us because of the pandemic, but Boston feels very much like home away from home. I am lucky that my job is very sociable so even during the pandemic I am out every day interacting with people at work.

Do you have any involvement with the Irish Dental Association?

I joined the IDA after I graduated from dental school. I have been asked to review some manuscripts submitted to the Journal of the Irish Dental Association over the years.

John enjoys playing tennis, but it can be tricky to find hitting partners in a new city, so he has also joined a flag football league. Flag football is the American football version of tag rugby. John says it took him a while to learn the patterns of play, and although he’s not expecting a call from the Patriots anytime soon, he’s had a lot of fun and hopes to continue in 2021.