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The missing piece for clinical education: Collaboration

Dec. 18, 2021
It can be frustrating for dental hygienists to share important information about the oral-systemic link when we're seen only as "teeth cleaners." But we must persevere!

If you’ve ever struggled trying to inform patients and fellow health-care providers about the importance of the oral-systemic connection, you’re not alone. You know you are qualified to do more than “clean and produce,” but you may not be sure how. I was once in the same boat.

We need to help our fellow preventive specialists who want to explain the connection between oral health and overall health to their patients and colleagues.

We struggle to educate

We’re all tired of hearing, “Well, it doesn’t hurt, so it’s not a problem, right?” We can put those objections to rest, forever! But the only way for us to express the connection is to do so in a compelling way that will encourage patients to act immediately.

Your story is probably the same as mine. You may have noticed after graduation how few continuing education courses there were about the oral health/body connection. You slowly started to see the connection. In talking with your patients and dentists and reading journal articles, this connection became more and more obvious to you. This happened to me when a male in his early 30s presented with severe periodontal disease and the dentist would not do any treatment on him until he saw a doctor. And not just any doctor; she recommended a cardiologist. The patient begrudgingly agreed.

Several weeks passed and he returned to our office. He stood in front of the dentist for several awkward moments and then reached out and hugged her. He had come back to thank her because he was diagnosed with two fully blocked arteries. She had saved his life with her oral diagnosis!

Related reading:
Better care for patients through an interprofessional model

The medical-dental-patient gap: Building relationships for optimal patient outcomes

This dentist was on the forefront of the oral-systemic connection, but where are the medical general practitioners in all of this? Why aren’t they sending their patients to the dentist? Unfortunately, like our patients, most ignore the oral-systemic link. This is frustrating. How can something so obvious be overlooked?

This was my ah-ha moment. To make an even bigger impact in people's lives, we must not only communicate with them, but also with our fellow health-care providers. The oral-systemic connection cannot be overlooked any longer, and we must all do more. The problem is, how do we find the latest information, deliver it in a compelling manner, and have that information be valued and heeded?

Then COVID happened

When the pandemic began, people were suddenly hyper-aware and more open to learning about the connection oral health plays in their overall health. It may very well be one of the better things to come out of this horrible pandemic.

Realizing that hygiene education alone was not enough, and that there was so much more information and ways we could impact patients' health, I discovered the National Network of Healthcare Hygienists and its Oral Systemic Educator (OSE) accreditation program. The secret to giving my best was gathering the most information I could on diseases and oral health. Listening to expert panelists on several different topics can give us the confidence to collaborate with patients’ medical providers and our dental teams about diabetes, oncology, inflammation, cardiovascular disease, pediatrics, and geriatrics.

How to move forward

Many of us get stuck doing the same thing in our practices, and learning about the oral-systemic connection might be what you need to bring back your joy. What we do is incredibly rewarding and being able to do it on a large scale to help others lay the foundation to do the same is also very rewarding. As hygienists, we are great at connecting and establishing rapport and trust with our patients. The more we talk about the oral-systemic link, the easier it becomes.

 For instance, taking blood pressure on every patient is a good place for a conversation and collaboration to begin. We need to ask, “Are you aware your blood pressure is high? Do you see a primary care doctor? When was your last checkup?” While we know that not every patient listens to us, we also know there is a good percentage of them who will.

As a result of your experience, it can become easier to recognize the warning signs and communicate findings with both patients and health-care providers. You’ll be surprised at how quickly this can lead to the discovery of several underlying conditions that might have gone undetected for years. We can now provide studies on direct connections that were not available before.

Other health-care providers often don't take hygienists seriously. Ask to work collaboratively with them. They may not be aware that their diabetic patient who is not responding to medication has severe periodontal disease. Offer to educate them about the relationship between oral and overall health. With patience, ingenuity, and dedication, we can help our patients, caregivers, and other health-care professionals in an even more meaningful way.

To learn more about National Network of Healthcare Hygienists and the Oral Systemic Educator certification, visit healthcarehygienists.org.

Editor's note: This article appeared in the December 2021 print edition of RDH.