Dental Hygiene Visit: It’s Not Just a Cleaning.

A dental hygiene visit in our office is not just a cleaning.  It’s an important health visit with many important benefits to you:

  1. Think of a hygiene visit as the cheapest form of dental insurance.  The best way to protect your oral health and avoid major dental problems in the future is to have regular check-ups, including hygiene visits. 
  2. Hygiene visits help protect your investment in dental treatment.  Keep up with your dental hygiene appointments to get the most out of the dental care you have received.
  3. Losing teeth is not a natural part of the aging process.  With proper care, you can keep your teeth indefinitely, even a lifetime. 
  4. Periodontal (gum) disease is often a “silent disease.”  Just as many people are unaware that they have high blood pressure, gum disease often does not have noticeable symptoms until it reaches an advanced stage.  Dental hygiene visits help keep your gums healthy.
  5. Oral health is part of overall health.  There is an increasing body of knowledge showing relationships between good oral health and overall health.  For example, gum disease may make it harder for patients to control diabetes.  While more research is needed, gum disease has also been associated with other systemic diseases.  Our motto is, “healthy mouth/healthy body.”

Enjoy the fresh and clean feeling in your mouth after a dental hygiene visit, but remember, it’s so much more than a cleaning.  

Recognizing a Major Patient Education Problem–Illiteracy

According to the U.S. Department of Education, 54% of U.S. adults 16-74 years old–about 130 million people–lack proficiency in literacy.  These individuals have a reading aptitude below the sixth-grade level.

There are numerous reasons for this shocking statistic: poor education, learning difficulties, learning English as a second language, or simply lack of exposure to English.  These issues are apparent across many demographics and may affect even high achievers.  For example, an adult literacy program reported that one student was a well-respected cardiologist in his home country, but when he came to the United States mid-career, he was not able to read and write English.

There are four learning styles:

  • Auditory (listening)
  • Reading (comprehending written materials)
  • Visual (seeing)
  • Hands-on (kinesthetic or learning by doing)

For individuals who do not have a good command of English, verbal explanations may not be clearly understood.  Those with underdeveloped reading skills may have difficulty reading printed instructions or patient education information on a website.

This problem is compounded because it is not uncommon for people to be embarrassed by their lack of reading ability.  Stories abound of adults hiding their illiteracy or procrastinating for years before enrolling in a reading program, which are often taught be volunteer tutors.  There are patients in your office every week who sign forms and appear to understand spoken and written instructions but who do not fully understand the messages you are conveying.

For these patients, visual representations such as photos (intraoral and extraoral), x-rays, and videos are very useful.  Allowing a patient to handle a model also helps them understand the treatment plan. 

Dentists Need Scripts for Three Reasons

Dentists need scripts for three reasons: to make the practice more efficient, increase case acceptance, and provide consistent dental patient education. The word “scripts” is used as a short-hand method to suggest what are also called “talking points.” It is not a question of reading word-for-word prepared scripts when patients ask questions, but having key phrases available that each team member can weave into their own speech patterns.

Make the Practice More Efficient. A common scenario is that patients are told they need a certain procedure, such as dental implants. The benefits of dental implants are numerous, which is all the more reason to have a script that concisely conveys the most important information. For example, “dental implants are the most advanced tooth replacement system ever devised. They look and function just like natural teeth. They never decay or require root canals, and they can last for decades or even a lifetime with proper care.” One can always expand on this explanation, but notice how much information is conveyed in a short message.

Increase Case Acceptance. When patients cannot decide whether to go forward with recommended treatment, you can use a very compelling script: “The proposed treatment will never be more conservative, more cost effective, or less invasive than it is today.” Let’s unpack that sentence. Everyone wants conservative rather than radical dentistry. “Cost effective” is a very good term for conveying value. Finally, if patients delay treatment, they may need more extensive treatment in the future. The concept that the treatment will never be “less invasive than it is today” nicely captures that point.

Consistent Patient Education. For procedures that you commonly provide in your office, you need to have an agreed upon list of benefits. This list, or script, creates consistent patient education. If a patient asks why a crown is needed, it is likely that everyone in the office can provide correct answers, although the answers will no doubt vary depending on the person who is responding. The great advantage of having a script is for everyone literally to be on the same page and give patients consistent answers that the doctor has deemed in advance to be the best way to answer the question.

The wording used to answer commonly asked questions should not be left to chance.  Dentists need scripts to remove variables and provide a consistent and efficient way to provide dental patient education and increase case acceptance.

Price Shoppers Need Dental Patient Education

One of the greatest threats to dentistry is that it is often perceived by price shoppers as a standardized commodity. This off-the-shelf mentality undermines the dentist’s message and the value of dental services and creates a dental patient education challenge.

The mentality is as follows. Your child needs braces? No problem. Just shop for the orthodontist with the lowest fee, because—in the minds of many—the treatment is all the same and the orthodontist is programmed to work the same way again and again. Start with crooked teeth, put on braces, straighten the teeth, remove braces. Repeat with the next patient. Most people do not appreciate the diagnosis, treatment planning, and clinical skill necessary to get an excellent result in orthodontics, especially with complex cases.

Price shoppers are of course not limited to orthodontic treatment but are pervasive throughout the dental marketplace, whether the treatment involves impacted wisdom teeth, dental implants, or even a single crown. When told that a crown is necessary, a patient’s first question is often related to the cost of the crown, not the type of crown or the expertise of the doctor who provides it. If you told your patients that you have boxes of crowns in your supply room organized by sizes, like shoes, many would believe you and wait for you to grab one off the shelf to test the fit.

The need for dental patient education to combat this perception grows every day. When the patient says, “I can get it cheaper somewhere else,” the message should be:

Dental treatment combines my artistic judgment with all my training and experience in the science of dentistry. You can get something similar somewhere else, but the crown that I provide is unique because no two crowns are exactly alike. I am committed to high quality dentistry that is customized for you.

One well placed volley will not necessarily slow the onslaught of price shoppers who come to your practice, but the “dentistry-is-an-art-and-science” message is both high minded and resoundingly true. You are a Picasso in a studio creating masterpieces, not a Sam Walton opening chain stores filled with mass produced merchandise. There is no sale on crowns in aisle four of your practice.

Like so many other artists, you may not be fully appreciated in your own time, but you are teaching patients, often individually, and exposing them to unique dental artwork.

David Schwab Ph.D.