A recent trending topic in dentistry has seen dental professionals promoting oral health’s direct effects on patients’ overall health. This is seen in campaigns, days of recognition and association messages, but it’s also become apparent for patients during their dental appointments, which will now often include a health assessment.
Oral Health Group recently conducted a survey*, with nearly 400 Canadian dentists, asking questions pertaining to health assessments and a dentist’s role as a healthcare provider. 91.1 per cent of those dentists agreed they are as important as general practitioners and family doctors when it comes to diagnosing potential health issues in patients.
While that number is high and reaffirms the importance of oral-systemic health, only 85.2 per cent of Canadian dentists are performing a general health check. This includes screening for oral cancer (92.9 per cent of dentists are screening), high/low blood pressure (71.4 per cent), diabetes (39.6 per cent) or other health checks (15.4 per cent).
When the data is broken down into categories of practice size, the drastic difference in responses comes from dentists working in practices earning less than $500,000 per year. The survey found 88.3 per cent of these dentists would agree they are as important as GPs and family doctors, however only 74.4 per cent are conducting health assessments on their patients.
If it’s common practice in the dental community to perform health assessments on patients during every appointment, and dentists recognize the role they play in systemic health, why are there are dentists in every practice size leaving out a health check? The following is a look at possible factors:
Regardless the size of a practice, dentists are busy. Aside from their clinical duties, they’re also running a business, so it’s easy to understand “smaller” tasks falling through the cracks. However, as patients become more aware of what should be expected from their appointment it will ultimately impact trust and loyalty to their practice.
Being understaffed can be a concern for smaller practices. It’s imperative that every staff member, whether administrative or clinical, understands their responsibilities in the practice. If the dental assistant or hygienist is responsible for these health assessments before the dentist joins the appointment, ensure this is communicated, understood and enforced, as it will fall on the dentist in the end.
Whether it’s the dentist, assistant, hygienist or other staff member performing these assessments, the entire team should be trained in these basic health checks. Local associations make it simple to go over the process of an oral cancer screening, what to look for with diabetic patients, or what to do if a patient has high blood pressure. Sometimes, that isn’t enough. Does the team know what the next step is if the health assessment isn’t clear? Ensure everyone is confident and comfortable handling any situation that may arise.
Perhaps this isn’t the dentist’s responsibility in their practice. Perhaps it’s a busy day and a health assessment is at the bottom of their list of things to do. None of these are excuses for skipping an assessment. The survey data shows all dentists, of every practice size, have the same priorities in their practice, competent staff and patient care, yet practices earning over $500,000 are performing significantly more health assessments. Reflect on daily steps with each patient and decide what needs to shift in order to comfortably include these checks.
It may be second nature to do an oral cancer screening on each patient, but is that considered a full health assessment? Of course, every dentist is different, every patient is different and this will skew the expectations for both. Be flexible, open and educated in what a patient will need – consider age, sex, class, previous health problems and personal experience to judge what each patient requires during their appointment.
Health assessments have a domino effect, especially in the age of communication. The idea of oral-systemic health is spreading quickly and the more educated patients become the more pressure there will be on dentists and their staff to properly perform and discuss health assessments with every patient. Take the initiative now to learn and prepare for every appointment.
Let us know: Do you perform health assessments on each patient? What are you testing for?
*Between February and March 2018, RKI, a third party independent research house, conducted a 10-minute online survey of active, practicing non-hospital affiliated dentists and dental specialists on behalf of Oral Health. Using Oral Health’s subscription list, a total of 398 dentists participated in the study (with 219 completing the survey to the end). Assuming a total of 20,000 dentists in Canada (and 398 total completes) the margin of error for the survey is +/- 4.86, 95% CI.