Knowledge is power

Sept. 29, 2014
Boosting patients' health literacy

Boosting patients' health literacy


I decided to start off this column with a cliché - Times have changed. What a quote, since change seems to be a constant in life. It's true that times have changed in health care, and will probably continue to change, as history eloquently reflects. This, of course, affects us in dental care.

One of the biggest changes in health care apart from infrastructure change - such as payer source change, health-care policies, or government involvement in health care - is the change in the patient's role in health care. By the patient's role, I'm referring to the increase of patients' influence in their own health-care decisions due to the knowledge readily available to them today. For quite some time, health care seemed to be the responsibility of the health-care provider, but now we're witnessing an equally important influence - patients' responsibility in their health.

Knowledge, which was once held in the thoughts and actions of health-care providers, is now available to all via the Internet. With the increasing use of social media, knowledge is even more rapidly available. Simply stated, knowledge is no longer privileged to health-care providers.

That last sentence may have sounded negative, but that was not my intention. I really do not believe that knowledge was ever meant to be a privilege only for health-care providers. In fact, one of the founding principles of dental hygiene was to provide knowledge to patients - such powerful knowledge that if it was put into practice, it could actually help them prevent diseases, such as dental decay and periodontal disease.

While in school, we used textbooks, journal articles, and faculty experience to attain knowledge. When we started practicing, we used professional illustrations, brochures, and models to pass the information we had learned to patients, because we wanted them to have knowledge so that they could practice prevention. Patients now have access to information, some good, some not so good, right at their fingertips. Times have changed.

I know that many of us, when we are the patient in the patient-provider relationship, strive to attain knowledge. When confronted with a new diagnosis, we call or text our friends or family, or get on Facebook or Twitter to share knowledge. We do this because knowledge is power, and power can help us make decisions that improve or maintain our quality of life, and may even prevent disease.

Historically, dental education was paternalistic in nature. Dental hygienists prescribed a regimen and dictated behavior to patients. Dental hygienists were considered the experts who imparted knowledge to patients, and in turn, patients were expected to change behaviors accordingly.1,2

Today, we consider patients participants in their health care, and we emphasize providers and patients working collaboratively toward treatment. Now that patients have knowledge at their fingertips, we should use this information to our advantage. We need to remember that with this access to knowledge, sometimes incorrect information is attained; however, we should try to take advantage of our patients' willingness to obtain knowledge. We can help them access correct, important information, and communicate effectively how to make the most of this information.

Using this readily accessible knowledge can really help us promote oral health, and it could improve oral health literacy in the long-term. Hopefully, this is the first step in behavior change that will lead to improved health!


1. Nathe CN. Dental Public Health and Research, 3rd edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson. 2011.
2. Harris NO, Garcia-Godoy F, Nathe CN. Primary Preventive Dentistry, 8th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson. 2015.

CHRISTINE NATHE, RDH, MS, is director at the University of New Mexico, Division of Dental Hygiene, in Albuquerque, N.M. She is also the author of "Dental Public Health Research" (, which is in its third edition with Pearson. She can be reached at [email protected] or (505) 272-8147.

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