Memory tricks: How dental hygienists can remember drug names better

Do you ever wish you were better at remembering drug names, what they are used for, and what dental implications they have? During an exam, have you ever thought, “I have seen this word somewhere in my textbook, but I can’t remember the details? Damn it! I am just going to guess on this one.” Abilify, Arestin, Humira, Crestor, acetaminophen, proton pump inhibitor, etc., are all drugs your probably see with your patients.

But do you rely on your phone app for the drug you have seen for the 30th time? Pharmacology is notorious for being difficult.

The brain is a muscle

The good news is that memory can be trained, and here is an example to prove it. Journalist Joshua Foer (author of Moonwalking with Einstein) was a “normal” journalist (with a very average IQ and memory). He trained his brain for one year and won the USA Memory Championship. Wow! I am fascinated by this story because he is proof that memory is a trainable skill. Any fitness fans out there? It’s just like working out to get that six-pack; you can gain a brilliant memory if you work at it.

A lot of us remember things by repeating words or numbers in our head. This repetition technique is called the phonetic loop. For example, you keep telling yourself, “I need to look up Cymbalta, Cymbalta, Cymbalta…” until you don’t need this information anymore. When you do this, the information stays in your frontal cortex, which is the region for short-term memory. It is not stored in the long-term memory.

The key to store the information in the long-term memory is to use images, stories, and senses to stimulate the brain. It is proven that we remember stories and visual clues better, which is the exact same method we should use for memorizing information in pharmacology.

Steps to creating a long-term memory

Here is how you can train your brain. There are two basic steps in making something memorable:

  • Step #1—Substitute (the word/number)
  • Step #2—Connect (the word/number with a special image/memory)

Let’s try this with the drug Crestor, which is always on the list of the top 150 drugs sold in North America.

  • Step #1—Can you see a “cream” (cres) “store” (store) in the drug’s brand name of Crestor?
  • Step #2—Whipped cream is made of fat, and an entire store is selling all types of creams that are not good for your health.

Therefore, Crestor (the second best selling drug in 2014) is a drug that treats high cholesterol.

Think about memorizing the drug name “Abilify” and what it’s primarily prescribed for (mental illness). Abilify sounds like “able to fly.” So the patient is telling you she is able to fly, which is humanly impossible. Can you make this connection with Abilify (not to be offensive or disrespectful about any medical condition)?

This simple connection can help you remember the drug better. If we have to utilize boring methods to try to retain every bit of information we need to remember, the methods will usually be less effective.

Remember drugs side effects

What about drugs and their dental side effects? You can remember all those details by using exactly the same technique.

Which of the following drugs does not cause gingival hyperplasia?

  • A. Cyclosporine
  • B. Phenytoin
  • C. Calcium channel blocker
  • D. HCTZ

The answer is D, HCTZ.

Let’s see how we can anchor that information in your brain. Cyclosporine.

Step #1—Do you notice “cycle”in the name? Think of a “bicycle”and its round wheels.
  • Step #2—Imagine those round wheels on the swollen patient’s gingiva. The next time you see the word cyclosporine, those round wheels you imagined earlier will probably float in front of your eyes.
  • Let’s try it again with the drug phenytoin.

    • Step #1—When you pronounce the word, “phen” sounds like “fan.”
    • Step #2—Now try to imagine round fans (portable fans you turn on when it is hot in the summer, not square box fans) on the patient’s swollen gums. If you can visualize that in your mind’s eye, the image will stick in your memory forever.

    Consider the generic medication category of calcium channel blockers.

    • Step #1—Imagine “blocking” a water hose (such as the one you have in your garden). When you block the water streaming through the hose, the area right before the blockage will swell until it eventually bursts.
    • Step #2—Now, can you link the thought and image of that swollen hose to swollen gums?

    Remember to make the image as clear as possible in your imagination. You want to make sure the new image you are connecting to your memory is quite vivid. For example, when you think of that bicycle when memorizing the facts about cyclosporine, think of your neighbor’s pretty bike with green rims and white handles.

    Those techniques are not new

    If you managed to read all the way to the end of this article, congratulations! You are deeply interested in improving your memory performance and making your life run more efficiently. This topic of memory is actually an ancient one. Simonides (circa 500 B.C.) is known as the father of the art of trained memory. Scraps of parchment dating back thousands of years or so state that memory techniques were an essential part of the orator’s speaking tools.

    The techniques I described above are also not new. Can you tell? I am not doing any magic tricks! You can easily find thousands of books out there that list various memory techniques. I simply modified the technique by bringing in my own experience and applying the techniques to us as dental professionals. You can also become as enthusiastic as I am about efficient memory and create your own tricks or modifications.

    As the founder of StudentRDH (Dental Hygiene Exam Prep), SmarterDA (Dental Assisting Exam Prep), and author of CE courses, I always emphasize the need to work “smart.” My bigger goal is to bring efficiency into our educational system, so we can use the full potential of our brain and stop failing exams. I hope this article gave you a sneak peek at memory technique, specifically related to pharmacology.

    Claire Jeong, BS, MS, RDH is an educator and entrepreneur. She founded StudentRDH and SmarterDA – which offer dental hygiene and dental assisting exam review courses. The online platform delivers content of the highest quality through the latest e-learning technology. According to some students, studying is now “addicting.” Claire was invited on various podcasts to speak about memory techniques and learning efficacy; topics she also promotes through articles, speeches, e-books, and blogs. Claire has a Master’s Degree in Administration from Boston University and a Dental Hygiene Degree from Forsyth School of Dental Hygiene in Boston. Prior to her career in the dental field, she has been mentoring students for 15 years and was an education specialist at Boston Children’s Museum. Claire is licensed to practice in the United States as well as Canada.


    1. Foer J. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. New York, NY: Penguin Books; 2011
    2. Lorayne H, Lucas J. The Memory Book: The Classic Guide to Improving Your Memory at Work, at School, and at Play. New York, NY: Ballantine Books; 1974
    3. Newport C. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing; 2016
    4. Top 100 Most Prescribed, Top-Selling Drugs. Medscape. Accessed June 23, 2016.
    5. MedlinePlus. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Accessed June 23, 2016