Can we change the world?

My husband and I have a wicker basket where we place all the magazines and catalogs that are mailed to us.

Aug 1st, 2011

by JoAnn R. Gurenlian, RDH, PhD
jargphd@verizon.net

My husband and I have a wicker basket where we place all the magazines and catalogs that are mailed to us. I also throw my professional journals in the basket. This past month, I noticed the basket was overflowing, so I took the time to see what was in there. I allowed myself the luxury of clipping articles about how to declutter my rooms, apply makeup better, use paint colors to enhance moods, and recipes I hope to make someday.

As my reading progressed from leisure magazines to professional ones, I discovered the wonderful world of Scientific American. One of the editorials spoke about the need to embrace science, and started with a quote from Larry Page, the cofounder of Google. "Is what you're doing going to change the world? If not, maybe you should do something else." Talk about a wow factor. Social and political issues aside, let's take a look at that statement with a friendly amendment. Is what you are doing in oral health going to change the world?

Do we enter into our jobs and careers with the idea of changing the world? Do we gauge excitement by how we have improved oral health, or do we measure our success by being able to meet the car payments and put food on the table? Mind you, these last items are very important. Basic needs are a necessity for all of us. But getting back to the question at hand, what are we doing in oral health to change the world? Where is science and its translation to practice taking us?

I can recall in the 1980s all the excitement about the possibility of a caries vaccine. What happened? It never got off the ground. Several companies are now exploring the idea of modifying Streptococcus mutans to render it ineffective in causing caries. Would that work? Would the dental community welcome this approach to preventing caries? Or would some be concerned about how it would affect their practice? What would we do if we eradicated tooth decay? What would our practices look like without that disease as a primary focus of care?

Take the same scenario and apply it to periodontal disease. What if researchers found a way to chemically or biologically influence biofilm so that periodontal disease could be prevented, or plaque and calculus could be dissolved by chewing a lozenge two to three times a day?

What would dental hygiene practice look like? Would you embrace this science as an opportunity to change the oral health of the world? Or would you scratch your head and wonder what else you would do in your practice settings? Would you be threatened by this advancement and resist its implementation, or would you celebrate the chance to change the health of your patients?

I realize these are rhetorical questions, but I want all of us to think about what we might do as individual practitioners and as a collective group of preventive specialists to change the world. I wonder what would happen if our professional conferences, continuing education programs, and study clubs focused on changing the oral health of the world. Could we do it? Could we prevent oral health disease across the globe?

I think we could, but not with the current paradigm for providing oral health care. We have to be willing to create change in our prevention models, our research questions, and our understanding of what constitutes health. If we are willing to step outside the norm, we could be amazing. And as Mr. Page observes, if not, maybe we should do something else because what we are doing now is not the answer.

I want all of us to think about what we might do as individual practitioners and as a collective group of preventive specialists to change the world.

JoAnn R. Gurenlian, RDH, PhD, is president of Gurenlian & Associates, and provides consulting services and continuing-education programs to health-care providers. She is a graduate program faculty at Idaho State University, adjunct faculty at Burlington County College and Montgomery County College, and president-elect of the International Federation of Dental Hygienists.

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