What is the best dental product ever?

Mark Hartley, editor of RDH magazine, provides the inside scoop on the best dental product ever. Hint: It's human.

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What is the best dental product ever?

The first step in this evaluation is to examine contortionists. Leilani Franco is a 28-year-old British contortionist who holds a Guinness record for traveling a little more than 65 feet in just over 10 seconds in a back-bent position. In other words, she bent over in the wrong direction (at least for the majority of us, who bend over at the waist to pick up items off the floor) and crawled those 20-something yards with the face and tummy looking up at the heavens. Imagine a cat arching its back, except it’s a human belly that’s the farthest point from the ground. The palms of the hands are out front during the “crawl,” not the fingers.

She does this faster than anyone else, and deserves the notation in Guinness World Records. Most of us can’t cover 65 feet in 10 seconds by crawling in a normal way, although defensive linemen certainly give it a shot while chasing elusive quarterbacks.

Artists often suggested that dentists in the early history of the profession possessed some of the skills of a contortionist. The comedic posturing involved with dental treatment usually seemed most evident during the extraction. Those “doctors” bent themselves every which way, rigidly bracing arms and legs against solid objects for the best possible leverage when it was time for the final yank.

So the answer to the question above is the dentist. From the trial-by-fire experience of the first extractions to milling their own esthetic restorations with a dazzlingly precise system of technology, dentists have always been the best dental product available to mankind. The product is a regular ol’ Swiss Army knife, used for everything from pain relief, preserving a functional dentition, and, of course, a pretty smile for weddings and other assorted life events.

TOM HANKS' MOVIE, “Cast Away,” in 2000 fueled thoughtful introspection about what viewers would do if stranded on a tropical island. (The script included self-administered dental treatment under primitive conditions involving an ice skate.) Unfortunately, it’s hard to get a statistic on the percentage of castaways who have been rescued, mainly because it’s difficult to tell if someone thought to have perished at sea actually died some time later as a castaway who was never found. The most disconcerting part about researching the survival rate of castaways is the search results for the 1960s sitcom, Gilligan’s Island. Many of us of a certain age do not want to revisit how we actually laughed during episodes of the TV show. As most evidence-based scientists wonder, how was the Professor able to build all that stuff on the island, yet not build anything to get them off that rock in the sea?

Most accounts of rescued castaways are from another seafaring era when the world was much bigger. But John F. Kennedy’s six days on Plum Pudding Island in the Pacific earns honorable mention in modern times (back before Camelot, when he was a PT boat commander).

But if the next castaway pauses momentarily at a dental convention before being destined to become the next passenger on Tom Hanks’ FedEx plane to nowhere, he or she needs to think of what can be taken with them before departing. The unlucky plane leaves in two hours; a mile of dental products stretch out before the eyes. The final destination of the day is a deserted tropical island with coconuts, pineapples, and feral hogs. What among these aisles and aisles of dental products should a castaway take?

The answer is simple. Shop the aisle itself, not the booths. The dentist is the best product at the show.

INITIALLY, THE DOCTOR may resist the idea about being the best dental product to take on a journey of unknown length to nowhere in particular. After all, dental education is expensive, and the training is arduous. Even if the doctor is quietly introspective — perhaps an ideal characteristic of a castaway — there are still probably some idle daydreams about pricey material possessions such as houses, very nice cars, swimming pools, etc. It’s not greed. It’s a belief in rewards that come about as a result of hard work. No, the dentist might not want to join someone in isolation as a castaway.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, I’m not for sale. I’m a contendah, going for the heavyweight championship of my association. I’m gonna save thousands of people in my community from dental disease, or die trying. Understand?”

Maybe the dentist won’t respond with that sentiment. For starters, there’s a whole mess of people telling Doc what his fees are going to be. Uncle Sam wants a third of the pie. All of the staff members have issues too, thinking that the classy performance put on by the dental TEAM should translate to better wages and benefits. Most patients, at the very least, are somewhat nervous about the dentist, if not downright frightened. Then there’s another whole mess of people, including the editor of RDH magazine, who says Doc discriminates against some residents who can’t afford the fees or live too far away. We think hygienists are the perfect solution for access to care.

“We’ll call you, Doc, if we encounter something we can’t handle.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa … Hygienists? OK, I’ve had enough. How are we supposed to get (holds fingers up to signify quote marks) lost on this island where you’re gonna be stranded?”

“In the movie, it was a FedEx plane blown to pieces in a storm over the ocean.”

On the island, one patient twice a year or so gives the dentist plenty of time to work on that dogleg left on the third hole of the golf course he will design along the shoreline.

“You pull your swing, and you’re in the water, Bubba.” You will be able to play the course too, if you will dutifully serve as the groundskeeper.

MEANWHILE, THE CASTAWAY is still at the dental convention. You can count on finding golf balls at a conference tailored for dentists. Several booths give away multiple sleeves of golf balls if Doc orders 5,000 of the latest and the greatest. Just fake being a dentist, since you’ll never see the dental manufacturer’s bill on an island with no zip code.

“Actually, I’ll order 10,000, if you can stuff all of those golf balls into this show bag they gave me at the entrance.”

This is how good the product is. With nothing but shards of coconut shells, the rinds of pineapples, and a few bones from the baby back ribs the two of you shared last Friday, you’ll still get top-rate care. Overwhelmingly, the other products in all of the booths are produced to make the procedures undertaken by the doctor and his staff pass very smoothly. The dentist, though, is the single dental product you want for an unnamed tropical island.

Speaking of the staff, what is the second best product available at the dental convention? It’s a dental hygienist. Again, shop the aisle, and not the booths. Dental hygienists roam the aisle from booth to booth, asking their questions. “What research has been performed on this product? As an exhibitor, you need to be flossing at least twice a day. I don’t think you are.” There is a problem, though, with taking a dental hygienist to the island. As long as her fingernails are, they’re not going to dislodge the biofilm that a potential castaway stupidly allows to accumulate in the mouth. So she will discuss with Doc whether the hairy fibers from the shell of a coconut or the bristles from a boar will work best in removing biofilm. Or, you could just fake being a licensed dental professional again.

“If I buy three of these curettes, I get one for free? OK, I’d like to order 10,000, please.”

One way or another, the dental hygienist levels the playing field against dental disease. You’ll whistle happily, making your own music, as you rake clean the sand traps on Doc’s golf course. This is how good the product is. If compliance with her instructions is excellent, you may not even need Doc.

If there’s money in the budget left over for a third product to take, the dentist and/or the hygienist might have a few suggestions.

“A case of toothbrushes or floss. Oh, I don’t know, probably can’t live without that instrument over there in that booth. No, we don’t need electricity for it.”

My advice, though, is to think about pain control. When a toothache develops after the pineapple coconut pork stew, you’ll be thinking very much like a pregnant woman about to deliver. Just drug me, baby.

This article is my Christmas gift to you, a reminder that what you do for patients all over the globe matters very much to the rest of us. Happy holidays!

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