To improve oral health literacy, words matter

By the CDHP team

The British Dental Health Foundation (BDHF) points to new research linking low levels of oral health literacy to patient anxiety and canceled dental appointments. One study showed that parents' fears influenced their children's attitudes toward dental care. Given the key role that oral health literacy plays, dentists and other dental practitioners can do more to change perceptions and address misconceptions. The chief executive of the BDHF says sometimes our best intentions fail because oral health advocates use language that confuses patients. According to Dr. Nigel Carter of the BDHF:

Oral health information can be a little bit like a game of jargon busting. Some of the terms are quite technical, and given the findings of the research and the Skills for Life survey, it is clear for many people they will simply go over their head.

Routine dental appointments are so important to keep up and for those people who are either too scared or simply do not understand why, information should be presented as clear and concise as possible.

Both patients and taxpayers pay the price when oral health literacy is low. As University of Maryland researchers have noted, low oral health literacy "contributes to disease which results in increased costs for all of us."

The other side of oral health literacy

Oral health literacy is more than simply choosing the right words. It's also important that we correct and clarify myths that misrepresent the science. The topic of community water fluoridation is Exhibit A of this need to set the record straight. Last year, when anti-fluoride activists in Portland, Oregon kept using the inflammatory term "fluoride chemicals" in their pamphlets and signs, a professor of family medicine at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), appropriately called them out. In a newspaper column, OHSU's Eric Walsh wrote:

… the anti-fluoride group talks about fluoride as a chemical. It is not a chemical. It is an element. If you want to name the element ‘fluoride’ as a chemical, you must also name the elements in water, oxygen and hydrogen, as ‘chemicals.'

It's important to start conversations with the right assumptions. Dr. Howard K. Koh, Assistant Secretary for Health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, co-wrote a journal article two years ago that proposed a new model — one that "calls for first approaching all patients with the assumption that they are at risk of not understanding their health conditions or how to deal with them, and then subsequently confirming and ensuring patients’ understanding."

How important is oral health literacy? Important enough that it was one of the five action items identified by U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona in his landmark "National Call to Action to Promote Oral Health." It's a tough challenge, but we can make steady progress if we all step out of our silos and work together. 

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