Are You A Freak Of Nature?

Wednesday September 28, 2022

I attended a continuing education course a while back entitled “Hit Man or Healer?” The course was given by a well-known leader in the dental profession. The basic premise of the course was the notion that we have a lot more science, studies and data available today to be able to make better decisions about the treatment that we dentists recommend to patients. The concept is called evidence-based dentistry. 

The idea is that if a very structured examination and diagnosis is done, treatment recommendations can be made based on science. The problem is, all too often the diagnosis leads to suggestions that without the proper dialogue can make the dentist look like a “hit man” (ie. patient perception of over-treatment) vs. “healer” (intervention with the intention to preserve the teeth better for the long-term).

The lecturer started by putting an image of a person’s teeth on the screen and asking the audience to guess how old the person was. My father and brother are veterinarians. They use the appearance of teeth to estimate an animal’s age. Although it is relatively easy to estimate a person’s age during transition from the primary teeth to permanent teeth, it is apparently a little more difficult when all the permanent teeth are in. I guessed the age of the patient on the screen to be between 50 and 60. 

The patient had great looking teeth. You could tell the person was a mature adult by the darkening of the teeth, but there was very little wear and very minimal dentistry. The patient ended up being 94 years old, which was more evident when her full face was projected on the screen…..although she looked great in general for 94. The lecturer said, “Is this the way teeth should look at 94 or is this woman a freak of nature?”

While there are definitely genetic factors that may play a role, many of the problems we see today with teeth are 100% preventable. For example, dental decay is 100% preventable. However, it is still not uncommon today to have a patient (maybe a teenager or an older person on multiple medications with dry mouth) come in for a routine dental hygiene appointment and be told they have decay, or multiple areas of decay, which were not present 6 months ago. In that scenario the dentist would be considered the “hit man”. 

The “healer” may have taken a different approach, and may have done a more thorough evidence-based evaluation and made recommendations based on diet, homecare habits and maybe even familial history that could prevent the decay in the first place. Dentists have gotten good at telling patients how they can “fix” the problem, but need to consider changing their thinking and get more training in how to “prevent” the problems we see today in dentistry.

Many of the basic principles learned in dental school are used on a routine basis. However, there is continuous new data emerging that we as health care providers need to expose ourselves to and decide on what and how to implement for the benefit of our patients. I hope to see major advancements in our approach to oral health care in my career. There is no reason you can’t live to 94 and have a great set of teeth.

As I have said numerous times over the last few weeks, and you will hear it again next week too: Unfailing routine professional maintenance is a key factor in achieving and maintaining dental health. Don’t just hope you’re a freak of nature. 

Dr. St. Clair maintains a private dental practice in Rowley and Newburyport dedicated to health-centered family dentistry. He has a special interest in treating sleep apnea and TMJ problems. If there are certain topics you would like to see written about or questions you have please email them to him at jpstclair@stclairdmd.com

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