Time to brush up on oral health

Dr paul o’dwyer BDS MSc (Healthcare Mgmt)

As 2019 starts, we welcome a new year and a new beginning. There is much to look forward to in the coming year. We hope that the new Oral Health Policy provides evidence informed principles which will aid all of our patients. We hope too that the necessary (and very long-awaited) Dentist Act will appear – and also reflect the changes to our profession at large since the current legislation, which is now 34 years old.

As most oral health professionals are aware in Ireland, we have a lot of work to do educating our patients of the importance of oral health, particularly to reverse a lot of the decay and periodontal disease that resulted from effective removal of the PRSI and DTSS schemes in 2009/2010. These schemes (now re-instated) are inherently flawed in their ability to respond comprehensively to patients treatment needs – but do at least improve access for patients to basic dentistry. 

However, the larger question should be – how successful is the message getting home in relation to the broader importance of oral health in general?

In thinking about this, I think of hotels. Many of you will attend conferences during 2019. In checking in to various hotels, I am often struck by something. Something so obvious that I often use it as a barometer to the general population’s attitudes to dentistry in general. When you check in to a high-end hotel, you will be greeted by high-thread cotton sheets, super-plush towels and various high-end toiletries such as “nourishing shampoos”, “revitalising conditioners”, “exfoliating soaps”, and other exotica. Have you guessed what’s missing? Toothpaste!

I am amazed that toothpaste does not feature in the battery of goods available. To add to the puzzlement, many hotels have the temerity to place luxury chocolates on the pillow.

This got me to thinking about the criteria for four-star and five-star hotels – both at home and abroad. Failte Ireland has a comprehensive four-star classification check list, which includes soap, towels and toilet paper – but no mention of toothpaste. In the US, the Diamond Star classification makes no mention of toothpaste or mouth-rinses. 

This may, however, reflect the findings of a Irish Dental Association (IDA) survey in 2014. It found that 94 per cent respondents thought that oral health was important – but 60 per cent would attend the dentist only when they “really need to” – the inference being not to attend for preventive check-up or routine maintenance. The survey also showed that only just over half of respondents were aware of the free dental check-up via government schemes, but only one-third availed themselves of it.

In another study, (Whelton et al., Oral Health of Irish Adults, 2007) it was reported that less than one-fifth (18 per cent) of young adults were found to
have healthy gums. The findings also highlighted that this figure slipped to just 8 per cent for adults between 35 and 44.

I am not advocating that the placement of toothpaste in hotels is going to turn the tide on oral health, but rather highlighting the fact that toothpaste/oral health care is absent from the “luxuries” of a hotel echoes customer demand and expectation coupled with a general perception of the importance (or lack thereof) of oral health.

When we couple the above information with another IDA finding which reports that a Eurobarometer Report on Oral Health (Special Eurobarometer 330, February 2010) showed that Irish people topped the European Union league for consuming biscuits and cakes (28 per cent reported eating them often, compared to the EU average of 18 per cent).It makes you stop and think about the uphill challenge we have with getting the oral health message out there.

We often spend so much time repairing the damage done by our refined sugar dietary intake that we sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture, the causative nature, and, most importantly, the preventive education piece that we as a profession can provide.

So next time you find yourself in plush hotel, think about the toothpaste – oh and don’t forget your toothbrush!  

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Published: 8 January, 2019 at 12:15