Front line RDH

July 1, 2009
Dental hygienists are on the front line, challenging patients about the need for early detection of a variety of health-related issues.

by Ann-Marie C. DePalma, RDH, MeD, FAADH
[email protected]

Dental hygienists are on the front line, challenging patients about the need for early detection of a variety of health-related issues. From hypertension screening, to diabetic evaluations, to cancer screenings, dental professionals play a pivotal role in educating patients on a variety of systemic issues. No other profession can have such an impact on patients’ lives, and this is readily felt in the early detection and treatment of oral cancer. Dental professionals are the key detection agents in the war against oral cancer, and dental hygienists are the front line warriors. Donna Grzegorek, RDH, has developed a program called “Incorporating Fluorescence Visualization into Oral Cancer Examination.” It discusses the benefits to patients and hygienists, as well as the business of dentistry when a comprehensive adjunctive oral cancer exam is incorporated into existing practice protocols. With survival rates from oral cancer virtually unchanged in 40 years, dental professionals need to take a more proactive approach to screening and detection of oral cancer.

Donna’s program reviews the staggering statistics of oral cancer while discussing communication and referrals, patient management, and the role HPV and oral sex play in oral cancers. She provides an in-depth look at fluorescence visualization and other available screening devices. These include oral fluid technology utilizing optical salivary sensors. The program also presents information on patient fees, insurance reimbursements, implementation protocols, and obstacles in developing an effective oral cancer detection program in a practice. The program also contains a hands-on portion with visual and tactile head-and-neck exam techniques, which allow clinicians to augment their understanding of early oral cancer exam and detection skills.

Originally designed for dentists and hygienists, Donna stresses it’s important to make this program available to all dental team members. Sharing an effective message with patients about oral cancer requires the entire dental team to be on the same page with their verbalization and understanding of oral cancer. All team members must be able to discuss oral cancer detection intelligibly.

In addition to the oral cancer program, Donna presents a program on “The Art and Science of Effective Communication,” which discusses barriers to communication. She incorporates techniques from that program into an effective communication process for oral cancer. She’s currently developing another program that reviews the hygienist’s role in delivering comprehensive care to the orthodontic patient.

Donna made a commitment several years ago to increase oral cancer awareness. She screens every patient 17 and older for oral cancer with a visual and palpation exam, followed by a blue light exam. Donna had learned all of the basics in hygiene school about head-and-neck exams, but it wasn’t until she started using blue light technology that she really began to see things differently. She encountered her first dysplastic lesion using her new protocols and found that it greatly enhanced her life-saving abilities. With her new protocols, she has discovered five dysplastic lesions that were confirmed histologically, yet never would have been seen with a plain head/neck exam. Sadly, she has met many oral cancer patients whose lives have been dramatically altered because of late stage diagnosis. Early detection is the key.

Donna is a 1980 dental hygiene graduate of William Rainey Harper College in Illinois. She attended Augustana College to study speech pathology, and in 1983 became an orofacial myologist. She has received numerous honors and awards and is a 29-year member of the ADHA. Dental hygiene is her passion, where she devotes time each week in a variety of settings — clinical, consulting, speaking, writing, and mentoring.

Donna feels strongly that dentistry, as a profession, needs to “turn it up a notch” and take greater responsibility for oral cancer. Hygienists are the profession of choice to assume the responsibility for early detection. It’s a great feeling to save a tooth, but dental hygienists have the opportunity to save lives!

For more information on Donna’s programs, contact [email protected].

About the Author

Ann-Marie C. DePalma, RDH, MEd, FAADH, is a Fellow of the American Academy of Dental Hygiene, member of ADHA and other professional associations. Ann-Marie presents continuing-education programs for hygienists and dental team members and has written numerous articles on a variety of topics. She can be reached at [email protected].