The cure for caries: Oral health literacy

A 31-year-old patient named “Julie” sat in my dental chair. I asked her, “What brings you in today?” She looked up at me and spoke with trepidation in her voice: “I don’t want to lose my bottom teeth and end up with another denture.” She pulled out her maxillary denture to address the puzzled look on my face. “I understand,” I replied. “Before I start the exam, can you tell me about your oral hygiene routine? How often are you brushing and flossing?” She half-heartedly smiled but spoke assertively, “Well, I brush sometimes once a day, and I don’t floss. Bad teeth just run in my family.”

How many times have you had patients tell you this? Unless they are the one in 14,000 who has amelogenesis imperfecta, the reality is their oral condition is almost exclusively related to their oral hygiene and sugar intake. To be clear, this is not condemnation or judgment of our patients. This is recognizing that our profession has a tremendous opportunity to improve the health of our patients through improved communication and education. Despite the progress we have made with water fluoridation, improved biomaterials and preventative measures, caries still remains the No. 1 childhood disease, while nearly one in three adults have untreated caries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Where have we fallen short? Oral health literacy. ADA policy defines oral health literacy as the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate oral health decisions. This means we have to explain oral health to our patients in plain language, using terms and concepts they can comprehend.

Despite my limited time in practice, it is clear that when we educate our patients in language they can understand, they become empowered and, as a result, their oral health improves.

The ADA recognizes the value and importance of oral health literacy, and has organized a contest open to all dental students. Students are asked to write a 500-700 word essay on the topic, “Cavities: What are they and how do we prevent them?” and submit it to their school. One essay from each school will be selected to compete nationwide. The winner will be published on the ADA consumer website, MouthHealthy.org, and will receive $500. Four runners-up will receive a $250 award.

Sometimes I sit and wonder, “What if Julie’s parents had known how to take care of their teeth? What if they taught her how to break the cycle? Would she be sitting in my chair today worried about dentures at 31 years old?” The answer is no.

For more information about the contest, visit ADA.org/healthliteracy.

~ADA Council on Advocacy for Access and Prevention

This content is sponsored and does not necessarily reflect the views of ASDA.

About ADA CAAP

Council on Advocacy for Access and Prevention (CAAP) seeks to broaden the scope of oral health care within the total health care system, promote preventive dentistry as a cornerstone of oral health care, and provide leadership, vision, and coordination of the ADA's activities in the areas of access to dental care.


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