Oral Hygiene Education: A Dental Assistant’s Guide

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Oral hygiene isn’t just about a pretty smile, it’s essential to good health. Research shows that conditions affecting the teeth and gums are far-reaching and can affect the heart, kidneys and brain. From demonstrating brushing and flossing techniques to reviewing the role of smoking and sweets in oral health, a significant part of a dental assistant’s role is to provide patient education. A healthy mouth supports a sound body, and it all begins with knowledge.

What is Oral Hygiene?

Oral hygiene is the practice of keeping the mouth clean. Basic interventions encompass techniques such as brushing and flossing. Comprehensive oral hygiene includes a broader range of approaches, including dental prophylaxis, regular checkups, and the prompt care of issues that impact the teeth and gums.

Why Oral Hygiene Matters

Dentists think of the mouth as a snapshot of a patient’s overall health. Although dentistry is a specialty that’s separate from the care of the rest of the body, the two are inexorably linked.

It is clear that poor dental hygiene is linked to heart disease, diabetes, liver and kidney disorders and recently, Alzheimer’s disease. But while the case for good oral hygiene continues to strengthen, the public remains largely unaware of these new developments. Media messages that promote dental health as a social issue more than a medical concern belie its importance to overall well-being.

Each visit with the dentist or hygienist is a perfect opportunity for dental assistants to inform patients about these critical issues. It takes time, patience and top-notch communication skills, but the results are worth it. Analyses show that early intervention makes a remarkable difference.

Education Topics for Dental Assistants

All oral care professionals play a role in patient education, but a dental assistant is typically a patient’s go-to source for information. As the team member that greets and prepares patients for their professional services, they’re ideally positioned to tackle issues such as:

Brushing

As easy as it seems, most patients make at least one of several common mistakes that make brushing less effective than it should be.

Errors include:

Choosing the Wrong Toothbrush

Conventional wisdom once held that the stiffer a toothbrush is, the better it cleans. But dentists now know that softer bristles are better at reaching nooks and crannies where plaque can hide. Brushes with features such as angled heads and flexible handles can help patients reach tight spaces. When patients consistently have plaque build-up in certain areas, a dental assistant can help them choose a brush that’s better suited for their needs.

Not Brushing Long Enough

The average American brushes their teeth for about 45 seconds, which is a far cry from the recommended two minutes, according to the . This results in bacteria and plaque being left behind, potentially leading to cavities and periodontal disease.

Dental assistants can offer tips that help patients brush longer, such as using a toothbrush with a built-in timer and finding ways to make the brushing experience more pleasurable. Some of today’s toothbrushes for children even play a fun tune that lasts for a full two minutes. When the music stops, they know they’ve done a good job.

Using the Wrong Technique

Instead of brushing in long strokes side to side, a better technique is to brush in short, circular strokes beginning at the gum line where bacteria accumulate most. Dental assistants can demonstrate the proper technique, seeing how it’s done helps visual learners understand the process better than a verbal description.

Flossing

When food builds up in the spaces between teeth, it promotes cavities. Flossing is the best way to remove it, but it’s time-consuming, and for patients with tight teeth, it can be difficult.

The good news is that dental floss has been re-imagined in the last decade. New types address some of the common issues patients have with flossing, but many people aren’t aware these solutions exist. Dental assistants can help by discussing the types of floss available and the advantages of each. Using a model to demonstrate how floss should be moved along the sides of the tooth instead of just dragged in between reinforces the right technique.

Nutrition

Sound nutrition is the basis for overall health, but select strategies improve oral hygiene. Snacking on foods heavy in starch such as crackers, for example, leaves behind a sticky film that encourages the growth of bacteria while overconsumption of acidic foods and beverages like coffee can erode enamel.

Providing patients with a list of snacks and between-meal beverages to avoid makes it easier for them to identify troublesome foods. Certain types of chewing gum can not only mitigate the urge to snack, but they’re also known to reduce the buildup of bacteria by encouraging the flow of saliva.

Regular Checkups

Because dental assistants serve as liaisons between patients and dental professionals, they’re in the ideal position to reinforce the importance of regular checkups and cleanings. Just a friendly chat about timely oral health topics while preparing the patient to see the dentist or hygienist sets the stage for further teaching.

While they’re waiting, informational handouts that detail what goes into regular checkups, including oral cancer screenings, gives patients something to think about and encourages them to ask questions. It takes only seconds to deliver powerful health messages that can last a lifetime.

Pre- and Post-procedure Care

During a dental visit, patients should be informed every step of the way. Not only is it reassuring, but it also underscores the value of the service and ensures patients know what to expect.

Whether a dental assistant is performing a minor procedure such as applying sealants or preparing a patient for an extraction, providing pre- and post- procedure care instructions is an essential responsibility.

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In general, patients know less about advancements in dentistry than they do medical services. Patients with oral health problems are less able to identify potential solutions than patients with similar medical issues. They depend on their dental health experts to keep them informed of new services.

Tips for Patient Education

Effective patient education is a matter of both timing and communication. Patients are individuals with unique perspectives and different learning needs, so each deserves a customized approach. A dental assistant can make the most of limited time to give patients the oral hygiene education they need by being approachable, listening actively, making observations, asking the right questions, and identifying learning styles.

Being Approachable

Patients new to a professional setting are more likely to communicate and share their needs with approachable team members. A warm smile and a friendly demeanor encourage people to speak freely while a lack of eye contact and a neutral expression are not welcoming. For dental assistants, building therapeutic relationships that define them as patient educators begins with an openness toward patients.

Listening Actively

Communication best starts with a technique called “active listening.” Active listening is more than just hearing what a patient says; it’s seeking to understand what they mean by considering both verbal and non-verbal communication. Body language speaks volumes.

A patient who says she’s comfortable with having her teeth cleaned, but then pulls away from instruments as they come toward her mouth may have fears or concerns that should be addressed before proceeding.

Making Observations

An anxious dental patient may hesitate to ask questions for fear of appearing ignorant, but concerns are often evident in demeanor. Making a gentle observation about a change in a patient’s attitude or body language can help bring attention to an issue by opening the door for discussion. For example, suggesting they seem hesitant to accept the dentist’s recommendation for an extraction lets the patient discuss potential barriers from finances to fear.

Observation is also an important tool when working with children who can’t yet communicate clearly. Watching for clues that indicate a child is fearful helps a dental assistant change approaches when necessary. Taking the stress out of dental visits allows kids of all ages to focus and be more receptive to teaching.

Asking the Right Questions

In the interest of time, it’s easy to fall into the trap of asking questions that require only yes or no answers. These types of questions are aptly called “closed-ended” because they slam the door on communication.

Open-ended questions, however, encourage patients to elaborate further. For example, asking a patient with persistent gingivitis if they snack between meals obtains less meaningful information than asking them to describe what they have for snacks on an average day. The more data a dental assistant collects, the more likely it is they will accurately identify both problems and realistic solutions.

Identify Learning Styles

Experts believe that students learn more when they’re taught according to style. As a patient educator, a dental assistant needs to understand how to best approach each individual. A combination of verbal and written communication works best for most patients. One reinforces the other, and it ensures instructions are clear even if there is a gap in literacy.

Hands-on demonstrations keep patients engaged and are particularly effective when teaching new techniques and working with children or the elderly. Assessing what patients learned is as easy as asking for a return demonstration.

Final Thoughts

Oral hygiene is increasingly recognized as an integral part of a healthy lifestyle, and it takes time to properly educate the patient. Dental assistants have many other responsibilities, so taking the time to teach each patient about proper oral health practices is important.

Interested in learning more about how to become a dental assistant? Do you need to become a dental assistant first?  The Dental Assistant training program at Meridian College provides extensive hands-on training including a school externship at a dental office where you will assist the dentist in treating actual patients.

Contact Meridian College today to learn more about becoming a dental assistant.