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Dear Patient: This is not "just a cleaning"

April 23, 2021
It's what patients tend to think—but a routine visit to your dental hygienist is so much more than that. Amanda Hill, RDH, discusses the depth of actual health assessment that happens at the dentist.

First, let me say I’m so glad if you go in regularly to see your dental hygienist. But let me take a moment to let you know why you aren’t coming in for just a cleaning. In fact, the “cleaning” part might be the least important thing we do.

As a dental hygienist, I take full responsibility that you’ve been taught your visit with me is a just a cleaning. We use that word in the office all time. We set up your next cleaning appointment, we call to confirm your cleaning appointment, we send you a postcard to tell you you’re overdue for your cleaning appointment. But it’s time to stop. Your periodic hygiene appointment is so much more than that.

Think of it this way: When you take your car to the dealer for a 60,000-mile maintenance check, they check your engine, transmission, tire pressure, oil, brakes, filters—all kinds of systems in your car. They give you a full report of recommendations to keep your car running in tip-top shape. Some things they take care of that visit, and others you might have to make a follow-up appointment for. They might wash and vacuum your car if there’s time and someone’s available. But you don’t say you’re going in for a car wash—you make an appointment for your routine car maintenance. The car wash part is a bonus!

Most patients think the cleaning part is the polishing that often occurs at the end of the appointment. The one with the gritty paste that reminds you of eating a sandwich on the beach. Truthfully, all we’re doing by that point is removing some stain and any plaque that might be left after all of our instrumentation. If we skipped that part, you’d still be good to go. The truly important stuff happened in the 45 minutes prior to that.

From the moment you walk in the office, we’re assessing. We watch you walk, listen to your speech, evaluate your dexterity. When we take your blood pressure, we’re looking for patterns, determining if you’re healthy enough for this appointment or if you need a referral to your primary care doctor. As we review your medical history, we’re quickly ticking through a list in our heads of potential interactions or indications of disease. We perform a head and neck cancer screening that started the moment you entered our operatory. We’re looking for lumps, bumps, and inconsistencies that could be signs of a current or future issue. All this is happening before you ever open wide.

Once we look in your mouth, we perform a cancer screening and an airway assessment. Oral cancer is on the rise, and so are airway and sleep issues. We are becoming experts looking beyond your teeth and gums.

Next, we might evaluate your periodontal or gum health. We now know that gum disease has an association or direct correlation to diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, gut health, cancer, and more. So those bleeding gums that you’ve always had aren’t “normal”—they’re a sign of other stuff happening in your body. And we want to figure it out.

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We look for cavities in your mouth, as well. New and emerging science tells us that cavities aren’t just because you eat too much sugar or don’t floss. You could have dry mouth, a low pH, the wrong bacteria—there’s so much more detective work to do so that we can help you stop the cycle of needing dental work. It might come as a surprise to you, but we don’t want you to have a bunch of procedures done. We are prevention specialists. Our goal is to get you healthy and stay that way.

Now we’re onto biofilm disruption. We used to think we were simply removing tartar and plaque, but we’ve learned about the biofilm that forms in your mouth, on your teeth, and in your gums where the popcorn shells like to go. Those layers of bacteria can build up and if left undisturbed, can wreak some havoc in your mouth and your entire immune system! We are determined to remove as much as we can to keep you healthy.

After we’ve done all of that, we might pick at your teeth with some sharp instruments or polish your teeth so they’re slick and smooth, but all that detective work that we were doing while we asked you about your kids or caught up on the latest antics of your dog was truly the part the that makes us your health-care professional.

So next time you call to see when your next appointment with the hygienist is and someone calls it a cleaning, correct them. Tell them you don’t want “just a cleaning”—you want a thorough assessment from your prevention specialist!