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patient medical history

Dear Patient: Tell us your medical history—it could save your life

Jan. 28, 2022
You might find it annoying when your dental office asks for your medical history, but that’s probably because you don’t know how important it is. Amanda Hill, BSDH, RDH, explains why your health could depend on this information.

Countless patients get annoyed when we ask them to fill out or update a medical history form. I often hear variations of “You’re only looking in my mouth, so what does the rest of my body matter?” If I had a dollar for the number of times a patient has said “no changes” to my inquiry about their overall health status only to find out when the dentist comes in there were, in fact, changes, I’d be a millionaire.

So why does your medical history matter when you’re at the dentist? Simply put, your mouth is connected to the rest of your body. There’s not some secret force field somewhere in your throat that separates all that’s happening in your mouth from everything else in your body. These spaces interact and directly affect one another.

Diseases go both ways

The CDC estimates that 47% of adults over 30 have some form of periodontal disease. Well, that periodontal disease could in turn be directly tied to more than a dozen other diseases including cancer, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, and diabetes. As a clinician, my knowing that you have a disease or a family history of a disease helps me help you manage or even avoid that disease. I have seen patients get their diabetes under control and then their gums get healthier as a result, and the inverse can also hold true: We focus on managing patients' gum disease, and suddenly their diabetes is under control. But I need to know about it, or I can’t provide you with the best care.

Medication and side effects

The Health Policy Institute at Georgetown University estimates that 66% of all adults in the US take prescription drugs. And of those prescription drugs, several hundred cause dry mouth and other oral side effects. While dry mouth might just seem annoying, feeling thirsty all the time can affect the health of your mouth. It puts you at risk for cavities, thrush, and difficulty chewing, swallowing, and digesting food. When we get a complete list of your medications, we know what to look for and can help you manage or avoid some side effects. Keep a list of your meds on your phone or take a picture of each bottle; those names and dosages are hard to remember.

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“Mouth clues” can lead to early diagnosis

Diseases like Parkinson’s, Sjogren’s, HIV, and diabetes often start with dry mouth. I’ve known clinicians who caught some of these diseases really early on, long before their medical team had a clue, giving these patients precious time to manage their health and wellness. Our mouths provide clues to what’s happening in the rest of our bodies. But we need all the other clues to put the pieces together, and that starts with a thorough and updated medical history.

No more boring lectures

If you’re one of those patients with a cavity every time you visit the dentist and are really tired of the brush and floss lecture, maybe there’s something else going on. Help your clinician connect the dots. It’s tough for us to do that without knowing what’s happening in the rest of your body. Perhaps you have asthma and are using an inhaler, or you have reflux and acid is constantly contacting your teeth. This will significantly impact the products we recommend and the instructions we give.

The more information your dental team has about you, the better they can care for not only your teeth but also your whole health. And until we have a one-stop cloud for all your caregivers to tap into, you’ll need to keep filling out those medical history forms. Your health might depend on it!

About the Author

Amanda Hill, BSDH, RDH, CDIPC

Amanda Hill, BSDH, RDH, CDIPC, is an enthusiastic speaker, innovative consultant, and award-winning author who brings over 25 years of clinical dental hygiene and education to dentistry. Recipient of OSAP’s Emerging Infection Control Leader award and an active participant with the advisory board for RDH magazine, DentistryIQ, and OSAP’s Infection Control in Practice Editorial Review Board and membership committee, Amanda (also known as the Waterline Warrior) strives to make topics in dentistry accurate, accessible, and fun. She can be reached at [email protected].