Educating Healthcare Providers About Oral Health- A Dental Student's perspective
Undoubtedly, you've heard the phrase, "The eyes are the window to one's soul." It makes good sense. A person's eyes often give an indication of their mood at that very moment, despite what words they may be using. It's one way we can tell if our patients are comfortable during a procedure when a dental dam, hands, and instruments in their mouth prevent them from speaking.
I challenge you to consider this variation: "The mouth is the window to one's health." Take a moment to consider what it means to you as a key player in your patients' well-being. We, as members of the dental community, are aware of the established links between oral and systemic health. But how does that factor into our role in the healthcare community as a whole and our patient's total care?
Here is where I'm going with this. As students at a university that includes multiple graduate-level healthcare programs, we have a unique opportunity to interact with students in other disciplines on a regular basis, in many cases daily. We share occasional classes, see each other at the library, and get to participate in special events together. It is the perfect environment for pre-professionals from different areas of healthcare to come together and share knowledge and experience.
That's where this idea of educating other healthcare professionals about oral health has emerged. What is it that people in other fields – such as osteopathic medicine, clinical psychology, and pharmacology – would benefit from knowing about oral health? As students, we have special opportunities to share this information with other programs, enhancing their understanding of the relationship between oral and systemic health and often learning something in return.
While it's great that interprofessional teamwork can take place at an educational institution, that isn't exactly representative of the "real world." Chances are when you sit down to lunch somewhere, you don't have a table of optometrists to your left and physical therapists to your right. That said, ask yourselves: Do we ever attend meetings or courses that include professionals from other fields? Are any of our patients in a healthcare field? Do we have friends, relatives, or members of our church who are also healthcare providers? Considering there are over 18 million employees in the US healthcare sector, you probably do.
Communicating with Other Professionals
The world is full of good ideas. T he difficulty comes in putting those ideas into action and making things happen. Healthcare disciplines tend to operate within silos. As such, there aren't many organic opportunities to communicate with each other in a professional setting, leading to a couple different solutions: taking advantage of social situations and creating new opportunities. The overarching idea is to take the knowledge you have as an expert in oral health, consider what information another professional in a separate discipline could benefit from, then sharing it in a way that is meaningful.
How do you like to communicate information? Are you a talker? Do you prefer to put thoughts down into written form? Do you have a lot of people you communicate with through an online community? Whatever it is you prefer to do, simply do it. It really is that straightforward. Strike up a conversation with someone you know who works in healthcare and ask if they know what oral signs can help when diagnosing systemic concerns. Share a post on Facebook informing people that baby teeth need the same care as adult teeth. If your community has a local publication, consider writing a simple piece in laymen's terms that people would find interesting, reaching members of the community, professional and nonprofessional alike.
Interprofessional interactions do occur. But with a busy practice life, the call to greater action may be of significant benefit to patients. As a practicing dentist, one knows that if your patient has periodontal disease, he or she may have other factors that increase risk of a stroke, and that a patient's anti-anxiety medication may be leading to excessive dry mouth and caries. But do their other providers know that? Why would they? We are the ones that have that knowledge to share, and we have the power to do so. We know things like:
· Oral signs can point to systemic issues to help form a diagnosis
· Periodontal disease and heart disease share common risk factors
· Baby teeth need the same care as adult teeth
· Many drugs cause xerostomia, leading to discomfort and tooth decay
· A dentist can help detect and/or treat dental disease, oral cancer, chronic pain or migraines due to malocclusion, TMJ disorders, sleep apnea, and GERD
· Health professionals can refer their patients to a dentist as they would any other specialist
· Oral cancer kills an average of 1 person per hour
· Some signs of abuse can be detected in the mouth
· Dental infection can lead to medical emergencies and even death
While these may seem simple and even dramatic, the idea is to pique interest and continue the conversation. It's all about fostering these interdisciplinary relationships and opening up communication across different healthcare professions. We do this relatively well in dentistry across the different specialties, but it doesn't happen as much it could beyond our sphere.
The end result? Other professionals will have a better understanding of the relationship between oral and systemic health, leading to more comprehensive care for our patients and improved well-being. But it cannot happen without action, without you sharing your specialized knowledge with people you never even realized might need it. By simply engaging the people you have within your circle, the dental community as a whole can help change the notion that the mouth exists in isolation from the rest of the body, fostering the idea that the mouth truly is a window to one's health. It has a nice ring to it, and wouldn't that be a magnificent adage to have catch on?