After 35 plus years in practice and being a continuing student with a goal of providing optimum service for my patients, I have discovered that in order for them to make prudent decisions relative to their oral health I had to first learn to become an effective teacher. Interestingly enough, the word doctor originates from the Latin word “docere” meaning “to teach.” This is foreign to most dentists as we are not selected for dental school based on our teaching ability or intercommunication skills, nor is the subject of patient education/communication taught in dental schools. My learning odyssey has taken me on a path where I’ve learned how closely integrated the mouth is within the rest of the body, some examples being how a disharmony between the teeth and jaw joints can cause a ripple effect from head to toe including migraines, tension headaches, neck, shoulder and back pain; how a beautiful smile is closely related to how the teeth function; how bad oral bacteria leaking through the gums into the blood stream can actually be a cause of heart attacks and strokes. Through having learned about these connections, the Dental Wellness Center offers pertinent information and workable solutions for our patients.
Becoming an effective teacher requires that the dentist make a transformation – a paradigm shift of sorts - because a teaching mode is in direct contrast to the predominant “fix and repair” symptom treating mode which is an offshoot of the medical model wherein the doctor is the authority, and the patient the sick supplicant having pills dispensed that deal with symptoms alone. This has become so ingrained that it is not uncommon that many patients expect the doctor to take full responsibility for their health, as they have been trained within this predominant mode. In today’s world however, with the information age spawned by the internet, many patients are learning that there are alternate modes of medical and dental care wherein the doctor (teacher) and patient (student) collaborate and become partners to develop an accurate diagnosis and treatment regimens that deal with the actual causes of conditions rather than mask it with medications or “remove, repair and replace teeth.” A vivid dental example of this is the many young families that are entering the Dental Wellness Center seeking second opinions whose children have rampant decay, having had prior treatment recommendations of fillings and crowns with little, if any attention given to discovering the cause, or “why” behind it and how to effectively combat it.
This dental practice transformation requires that the dentist be energized from a basic passion of knowing it is the right thing to do in order to get over the hurdles that lie in the way of escaping this prevailing traditional mode – not an easy thing to do, as there are many good doctors who feel trapped within “the system.” As mentioned, the good news is that more than ever people are becoming increasingly aware that the traditional “symptom treating” mode is not the answer and are willing to learn and share the responsibility for their health through seeking practitioners who will guide them with accurate information and workable solutions. Having gone through this transformation and having developed workable solutions for my patients from many years of continuing education and having learned from amazing mentors, I have discovered that teaching them involves more than solely conveying proper information. It first requires the development of a trusting relationship between doctor and patient that sets the stage for both of them to learn about the state of the patient’s oral condition. This is accomplished through the doctor and patient being involved in a learning experience that lets each of them understand the rationale behind the patient’s problems wherein they can become “their own doctor,” directing their treatment based upon what they have learned, not solely because the doctor is the “authority.” Most new patients I see have no idea of the high probability that their headaches, neck and shoulder pain could be related to their bite (1). Today, more people are learning that gum disease is related to systemic problems, and I have rarely seen two people with the same degree or type of gum disease (2). This mutual learning process requires that the practitioner first learn all he can about the patient, and then translate it in understandable terms to the patient wherein their shared responsibilities are defined. This evolves into an interdependency rather than a dependency upon the doctor, as it is with the traditional health model.
Although this mode places a large onus on the doctor to become an effective teacher, I believe it is the only way to effectively describe the mutual responsibilities that constitute the development of true oral and associated general health. It has been said that “health cannot be bought by the rich nor given to the poor.” My experience has taught me that true health requires high interest and mutual commitment on the part of both doctor and patient. If this mutual interest is absent, the game is over from the start. Therefore, I believe that it is the responsibility of the doctor to first discover whether the patient has the interest and passion to want to learn. When a patient has this interest, they become great students and partners in their health development as they learn the “whys” behind their problems. Trust is engendered along the way that allows them to truly understand all options of treatment available including their risks and benefits. When becoming healthier is viewed more as a process of learning and co-discovery rather than a series of treatment events, confidence is developed, demonstrable healthy changes occur, and the magic of long-lasting transformation appears.