Dental assistants play key role in patient health

Illustration of EKG with tooth shapes

Although it’s often unrecognized, dental assistants are crucial to not only their patients’ oral health but also their overall health. 

For many patients, receiving dental care simply means keeping a bright smile and healthy mouth. But it may also help them maintain a healthy heart. Ashley Johnson, CDA — the dental coordinator at Community Health Partners in Livingston, Montana — has seen her team identify multiple patients with risk factors for heart disease after taking their blood pressure in the office. 

“They didn’t know they were at risk until we warned them about their high blood pressure,” explains Johnson. “When they left, they realized they should go to the doctor.” 

At Community Health Partners, Johnson’s team takes every patient’s blood pressure during their dental appointments. It’s become a more common practice at dental offices across the country because it can help identify hypertension, which puts people at an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. 

And it’s just another reason to visit the dental office twice per year and maintain good oral hygiene. 

Professional cleanings — as well as everyday brushing and flossing — do far more than fight off stains and cavities. Dental care plays a pivotal role in overall wellness that often goes unrecognized. 

Dental assistants are trying to promote the importance of oral healthcare, and of dental assistants to dentistry. 

Every day, dental assisting professionals use versatile technical and interpersonal skills to help treat, educate and comfort patients. While these may seem like basic job duties, they go a long way toward helping patients maintain strong dental and overall health. 

The education component is crucial, according to Johnson. 

“A lot of people don’t realize that bacteria doesn’t just stay in your mouth,” says Johnson. “It travels throughout your body.” 

Paula Eastwood, a Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) certificant at UConn Health Center in Farmington, Connecticut, agrees. 

“Even though a tooth may seem small, it contributes to your general well-being, because an infection in the tooth is connected to your bloodstream and that could affect your heart or your brain,” explains Eastwood. “That’s why it’s so important for people to practice prevention.” 

If patients let bacteria build up in the mouth, the damaging effects can go beyond tooth decay and gum disease. According to the Mayo Clinic, oral bacteria — and accompanying inflammation — can travel to or affect other areas of the body and may contribute to issues such as heart disease, pregnancy complications and pneumonia. 

“Some people don’t understand the importance of the connection between oral health and overall health until you explain it to them because they may be thinking, ‘It’s just my mouth. I’m fine,’” says Johnson. 

That’s why regular dental appointments are critical. Not only do patients get harmful plaque and bacteria removed from their teeth, but they also receive education on the importance of oral hygiene and regular dental visits. 

“We have had many patients who have come back to the dental office after time away and then realized the tooth pain they had, possibly as a result of putting off going to see the dentist, was the whole reason they felt so bad for so many years,” says Johnson. “They realized they had more energy than ever before after their infected tooth was treated.” 

For Eastwood, who works in pediatric dentistry, appointments are opportunities to set children up for a lifetime of routine oral healthcare and strong oral health. 

“It’s important to make sure patients take home their toothbrush and toothpaste because those things can be forgotten,” says Eastwood. “This is your prize. This is how you’re going to keep your treasure, your teeth, your pearl. Because if you take care of your teeth, your teeth are going to take care of you.” 

Breaking barriers to better well-being 

A dental assistant’s duties don’t stop at helping the dentist or hygienist during an appointment. A key component of the job is making patients feel comfortable — enough so that they return for routine exams every six months and maintain healthy mouths for a lifetime. 

The reasons people might avoid dental appointments vary. Many face financial barriers. Some fear going to the dentist or feel embarrassed about showing someone their mouth. Others simply don’t know they should visit a dentist twice a year or feel it isn’t important. 

“I didn’t realize until I started working here that it was not common for people to go to the dentist every six months,” said Johnson. “My parents made us go. Whether they could afford it or not, we were at the dentist every six months. It was a huge eye-opener for me to see that it wasn’t part of everybody’s every day.” 

When people don’t seek professional dental care as often as they should, or at all, this can increase their risk of cavities and gum disease, which can lead to other health problems. A 2010 study by the Journal of Dental Research found that people who have a dental checkup even once per year had better-than-average oral health and fewer missing teeth due to cavities. 

Johnson believes dental assistants are invaluable in helping patients overcome barriers to care. 

“I think a big part of that is making sure that nobody ever feels ashamed when they come to the dental office, especially in community health centers when some people haven’t been seen for years,” explains Johnson. 

Eastwood has helped organize a dental health fair in Hartford, Connecticut, to help underserved people in the community. Along with her fellow volunteers, Eastwood gave people resources to find dentists, offered dental checkups, and distributed toothbrushes and toothpaste. 

“I was so delighted to be able to serve in that capacity, not just at the health center, but for the community,” says Eastwood. “This is where I find a lot of fulfillment and purpose.” 

Building a genuine rapport with patients is another factor that can keep them coming back to the dental office. 

“Even just remembering if they have a cat or the cat’s name can totally turn a patient’s attitude or day around when they’re in the chair. They realize that they’re not just another number, but they are a patient and they are your priority,” says Johnson. 

Knowing how to put patients at ease is especially important when working with children, Eastwood explains, because alleviating their fears and creating a positive experience can make them feel comfortable coming back throughout their life. This includes everything from using kid-friendly terminology such as “sugar bugs” to promising a sticker for good behavior. 

“They start to relax and feel at peace and comfortable,” says Eastwood. “That’s what my role is as a dental assistant. And I win a lot of kids over in my approach.” 

Johnson also encourages her dental assistants to stay in exam rooms and listen to what dentists tell patients. This helps dental assistants understand why a diagnosis was made or a procedure was recommended so they can then relay that information to patients in a relatable, unintimidating way. 

“Sometimes, [patients] can hear it three different times from the dentist, but they might not understand it until you as a dental assistant change your wording,” says Johnson. “And you don’t know that until you stay in the room with the dentist and the patient, and you see different cues from a patient — whether it’s nodding or a look of confusion.” 

Taking extra time to help patients understand their dental health helps them become more comfortable in the dental chair and willing to come back to the office to the office in six months. 

“Everybody jokes about if we had a dollar for every time somebody said, ‘I hate being at the dentist,’” says Johnson. “But we’ve actually had some people who have come over that hurdle. And now they are some of our loyal patients who come every six months.”