A summit where hygienists belong

Federal summit on preventive health care receives an important message from the dental hygiene community about the profession's role in creating a healthier nation.

by Ann-Marie C. DePalma, RDH, BS

"We need to take care of ourselves, our families, and our communities. We need to take our message on prevention across America, from the sidewalks to the main streets of every community. We need to convince every American to start eating properly, stop smoking, lose weight and exercise. That's what this summit is all about. You are 1,000 messengers all across America. You're the individuals with the passion, the compassion, the intelligence, and the ability. You know what has to be done. As partners, we have a great opportunity to improve the quality of health of every American. With your help, we can do it. Now, let's go out and do it!"

That was the charge the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, gave to attendees at the first Steps to a Healthier US Prevention Summit held in 2003. The 2004 summit was hosted April 29-30 in Baltimore, Md., and brought together people who are making that difference on the federal, state, and local levels. It consisted of the health-care professionals, educators, policy makers, community and industry leaders — all who have a stake in our nation's health and well-being.

One such mover and shaker who attended this year's summit was C. Austin Risbeck, RDH. Austin and the California Dental Hygienists' Association were invited to present a poster session. Austin was the only dental hygienist who participated. The title of the poster, "The Role of the Dental Hygienist in Promoting Effective Health and Disease Prevention Measures," stressed the importance of the dental hygiene professional in providing tobacco cessation strategies, nutritional counseling, and blood pressure screenings as part of the dental hygiene appointment. The CDHA poster was based on the American Dental Hygienists' Association poster in 2004: "Want some life-saving advice? Ask your dental hygienist about what to expect during a dental hygiene appointment."

In addition, the CDHA poster commented on the role the hygienist has in obtaining a comprehensive health history, which can establish the risk or presence of chronic disease in patients/clients who may or may not see a medical professional on a regular basis.

Sadly, many of the health-care professionals and educators in attendance were unfamiliar with the services that dental hygienists can and do provide. Many did not realize that the dental hygienist is the "prevention specialist," and a goal of the dental hygiene professional is to inform and educate patients about their overall health. Many in attendance just viewed the hygienist as the one "who cleans teeth." But as health-care professionals, we are more than that. As a clinical hygienist, are you doing just the basics, "cleaning teeth," or are you promoting the profession by providing comprehensive health services for your patients? We now know that the oral environment plays a role in the development of low birth weight, premature babies, the increase in the diabetic patient's risk for complications, and that inflammation plays a role in cardiovascular disease. But are you practicing and spreading that information on a daily basis to your patients? Are you fulfilling the charge that Secretary Thompson gave? Actually, his charge fits what a hygienist does each and every day.

The Steps to Healthier US initiative is committed to bringing policymakers, the health, education, and business community, and the public together to establish model programs and policies that foster healthy behavior changes, encourage healthier lifestyle choices, and reduce disparities in health care. In September 2003, $13.7 million in grants was awarded to 23 communities to promote the Steps project. Recipients of these grants included a tribal consortium, 15 small cities or rural communities, and seven large cities. Each grantee was approved for a five-year health initiative project to increase awareness of the health risks of diabetes, asthma, tobacco use, obesity, and risky youth behaviors. Bringing information to places where people live, work, and go to school is the foundation of the programs.

This year's prevention summit emphasized that not only individuals, but also various media and professionals have an important role in providing health information to the public. In addition, the proposal, Prevention: A Blueprint for Action was endorsed. The blueprint contains action steps to guide in the quest for healthier lifestyles. The blueprint includes the following:

• Step 1: Get The Facts — Educate yourself about health and risk factors for chronic diseases, such as obesity. Learn what constitutes a healthy diet and how to read and use food labels.

• Step 2: Eat Better — Eat a healthy diet. Consume five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Consume fat and sugar in moderation.

• Step 3: Get Active — Be physically active. Strive for at least 30 minutes for adults and 60 minutes for children of physical activity per day. Play and be active as a family. Decrease time in sedentary activities such as watching TV or playing video/computer games.

• Step 4: Learn More — Avoid risky behaviors. Limit alcohol intake. If you smoke, quit; if you don't smoke, don't start. Know your family's health history. Get needed up-to-date immunizations. Have regular screening exams such as PAP smears and mammograms for women and colonoscopies for men and women.

The government has put together various websites and high and low-tech information to help everyone excel in the program. In addition, the ADHA, as a promoter of the Steps program, has incorporated the "Ask. Advise. Refer." program to increase the number of hygienists who assist their patients/clients in tobacco cessation. Previously, only the American Dental Association had a program for training dentists on sharpening skills in early detection of oral cancer and risk assessment in tobacco cessation efforts and hygienists were not included. Now with the "Ask. Advise. Refer." program, hygienists have a national smoking cessation program to help patients/clients quit using tobacco.

The California Dental Hygienists' Association continued to promote Steps to Healthier US by observing National High Blood Pressure Education Month in May 2004. CDHA urged Californians to have their blood pressure checked regularly, and if found to be elevated, to follow their physician's advice to control it.

The CDHA campaign also was an effort to raise awareness that hygienists can provide this valuable referral service.

June 2004 saw the launching of CDHA's statewide Smoking Cessation Initiative, California Gold Rush. This program is designed to reach California's 12,000 dental hygienists as another Steps promotion.

In addition, Austin is the founder of a coalition of health advocates who are committed to enhancing the public's knowledge and awareness of heart disease and general overall wellness. This coalition consists of dental hygienists, dentists, physicians, nurses and nurse practitioners, and dietitians, all of whom are interested in the well being of their patients. Dental Hygienists Against Heart Disease's objectives are:

• To raise awareness of the seriousness of cardiovascular diseases and act as a resource center on heart and stroke issues, including health promotion and disease prevention.
• To provide relevant and reliable information to make necessary behavioral changes and informed health care decisions.
• To improve the knowledge, attitudes and perceptions of health care professionals and the public.
• To create national, state, and local partnerships to enhance health promotion.
• To promote healthy lifestyles and give health care professionals, their patients and consumers, the necessary tobacco cessation resources and nutritional information they need to make healthy lifestyle choices, promote general health, and support oral health.

And isn't that what we are all about as hygienists, prevention and education? Are you up to the charge and challenge? Now let's all work together to put the blueprint into action.

Resources and Web sites:
• Steps to a HealthierUS Initiative - http://www.healthierus.gov/steps/index.html
• Prevention: A Blueprint for Action - http://aspe.hhs.gov/health/blueprint
• Small Steps - http://www.smallsteps.gov
• 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans - http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines
• Eat 5 to 9 A Day For Better Health - http://www.5aday.gov
• Calories Count - http://www.caloriescount.com
• Shape Up America! - http://www.shapeup.org/1000steps.html
• California Dental Hygienists' Association - http://www.cdha.org

More in Personal Wellness