The missing piece for clinical training: collaboration

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If you’ve ever struggled to educate patients and other healthcare professionals about the importance of the oral-systemic connection, you’re not alone. You know you are qualified to do more than ‘clean and produce’, but you might not know how. I was once in the same boat.

We must help our fellow prevention specialists who wish to explain the link between oral health and overall health to their patients and colleagues.

We struggle to educate

We’re all tired of hearing, “Well, that doesn’t hurt, so it’s not a problem, is it?” We can put these objections aside, forever! But the only way for us to express the connection is to do it in a compelling way that will encourage patients to act immediately.

Your story is probably the same as mine. You may have noticed after graduation how few continuing education courses exist on the connection between oral health and the body. You slowly started to see the connection. As you talk to your patients and dentists and read journal articles, this connection has become more and more evident to you. It happened to me when a man in his thirties presented with severe periodontal disease and the dentist did not give him any treatment before seeing a doctor. And not just any doctor; she recommended a cardiologist. The patient reluctantly agreed.

Several weeks passed and he returned to our office. He stood in front of the dentist for several awkward moments, then reached out and hugged her. He had come back to thank her because he had been diagnosed with two completely blocked arteries. She saved his life with her oral diagnosis!


Associated reading:
Better patient care thanks to an interprofessional model


This dentist was at the forefront of the oral-systemic connection, but where are general practitioners in all of this? Why don’t they send their patients to the dentist? Unfortunately, like our patients, most ignore the oral-systemic link. It’s frustrating. How can you ignore something so obvious?

It was my moment ah-ha. To have an even greater impact in people’s lives, we need to communicate not only with them, but also with our fellow healthcare providers. The oral-systemic connection can no longer be neglected and we all need to do more. The problem is, how do you find the most recent information, deliver it convincingly and ensure that this information is valued and taken into account?

Then COVID happened

When the pandemic began, people were suddenly hyper-aware and more open to learning about the connection between oral health and their overall health. This could very well be one of the best things to come out of this horrific pandemic.

Realizing that hygiene education alone was not enough and that there was so much more information and ways to impact patient health, I discovered the National Network of Healthcare Hygienists and its Oral Systemic Educator (OSE) accreditation program. The secret to giving my best was to gather as much information as possible about disease and oral health. Listening to expert panelists on many different topics can give us the confidence to collaborate with patient medical providers and our dental teams on diabetes, oncology, inflammation, cardiovascular disease, pediatrics and geriatrics.

How to move forward

Many of us find ourselves stuck doing the same in our practices, and learning the oral-systemic connection might be what you need to regain your joy. What we are doing is incredibly rewarding and being able to do it on a large scale to help others lay the groundwork to do the same is also very rewarding. As hygienists, we are good at building relationships and establishing a relationship of trust with our patients. The more we talk about the oral-systemic link, the easier it becomes.

For example, taking each patient’s blood pressure is a good place to start a conversation and collaboration. We have to ask ourselves, “Do you know your blood pressure is high?” Do you see a general practitioner? When was your last exam? While we know that not all patients listen to us, we also know that a good percentage of them will.

With your experience, it may become easier to recognize the warning signs and communicate the results to patients and healthcare providers. You will be surprised how quickly this can lead to the discovery of several underlying conditions that may have gone unnoticed for years. We can now provide studies on direct connections that were not previously available.

Other health care providers often do not take hygienists seriously. Ask to work collaboratively with them. They may not know that their diabetic patient who is unresponsive to medication has severe periodontal disease. Offer to educate them on the relationship between oral health and overall health. With patience, ingenuity, and dedication, we can help our patients, caregivers and other healthcare professionals in even more meaningful ways.

To learn more about the National Network of Healthcare Hygienists and Oral Systemic Educator certification, visit Healthcarehygienists.org.

Editor’s note: This article appeared in the December 2021 print edition of HDR.


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