Scheduling for Prevention Can Revitalize Your Practice

in Dental

We’ve all had it happen. Patients who have been away for a while finally make an appointment, and their mouth is a mess. They have multiple teeth in need of restoration, periodontal disease has ravaged their gums, their health is in danger, and their smile and self-esteem are in tatters.

It’s a tragedy. And as our understanding of oral bacterial colonies improves, it’s fast becoming a preventable one. Recent advances in our understanding of biofilms, the interplay between different types of bacteria, and our patients’ unique genetics all affect their risks for cavitation, periodontal disease, and systemic diseases.

It’s time to make true prevention, not simply prophylactic cleanings and inevitable restorations, a part of your practice. Shifting to a prevention-focused system of appointment scheduling means that you’ll have to change how you structure appointments, what services you’ll offer, and how you train your team. These changes are worth the effort, because you’ll have happier, healthier patients and a productive practice that does good by doing good.

What’s Coming Down the Pike

Dentistry is on the cusp of a major change in how we approach health and treatment. For more than a century, we’ve basically been in the cleaning and restoration business, even with the introduction of fluoride. A typical dental appointment includes x-rays, a cleaning, some fluoride, and then about 5 minutes as the dentist checks for oral cancer, looks at any trouble spots flagged by the hygienist, and makes a recommendation either for restorative work or a checkup in 6 months’ time.

We’re just playing catchup. We can’t spot cavities before they happen. We fix them when we see them, and then send our patients on their way.

The caries management by risk assessment (CAMBRA) protocol has given us a few new tools. If we see patients presenting with cavities, we can manage their oral bacteria with an eye toward prevention. We can prescribe products that can eliminate the damaging bacteria and lifestyle changes that will prevent reinfection.

We’re also making great strides in understanding how the particular mix of bacterial colonies in the mouth can affect a patient’s risk of periodontal disease. Researchers have discovered that, in the presence of Porphyromonas gingivalis, other oral bacteria colonies change their behaviors and transform from benign to pathogenic. These changes result in the inflammation that eventually leads to pockets, irreversible damage to the gums, and tooth and bone loss.

Current treatments for periodontal disease are basically aimed at reversing or preventing damage once the disease is already in progress. However, researchers are working to develop a vaccine that would protect against P gingivalis infection, and there is some evidence that C3 inhibitors could halt and reverse the inflammatory process in the gums. So, in the future, we may have tools to prevent periodontal disease in the same way that we’re finally getting the tools to prevent dental caries.

This will change how we structure appointments, since we’ll have to take the time to do more complex risk assessment and analysis of oral microbiomes for our patients. On the other hand, once we can control for these bacterial risk factors, many of our patients will have easier exams and cleanings.

Scheduling for Productive Prevention

Shifting our focus from cleanup dentistry to preventative dentistry requires a change in how we structure our appointments. Currently, most of the typical appointment is spent on prophylactic cleanings. Our less complicated patients may only see the dentist, rather than a hygienist, for about 8 minutes every 6 months. In many practices, it’s become almost like a cameo role in a movie. You show up, smile, wave, and glide out and into the next bay where you repeat the meet and greet.

If you want to schedule for productive prevention, you’ll need to initially schedule a little bit more time with each patient, at least in the beginning. That’s because productive prevention doesn’t just represent a major paradigm shift for you and your staff. It will also be new and unexpected for your patients.

Imagine you go into your mechanic for your regular oil change and tuneup, and he says, “Look, I’ve been doing oil changes and tuneups for years. I’ve replaced belts and fans and lights and whatever needed replacing. But it turns out that if I use a different oil, I may be able to reduce your long-term maintenance costs. And many other mechanics already use this oil. It’s been out on the market for a while and all the new mechanics in the field learned about it in training.”

You’d be a little annoyed, wouldn’t you? You just got a new fuel pump 3 months ago, and now he’s telling you that maybe he could have prevented that? If he doesn’t take the time to listen to your questions and address your concerns, you may be on your way to a new mechanic.

You need to have a conversation with your patients about real prevention of pathogenic oral infections, and you need to have it at the start of their next appointments, not at the end. If you’re switching to the CAMBRA order, you’ll also need to gather more information on each patient so that you can accurately access risk and plan appropriate treatments.

For the first appointment for existing patients under the new treatment model and for any new patients that join the practice after the switch, you’ll need to schedule one, slightly longer, more-in depth appointment that includes:

    An introduction by you, the dentist, explaining why your practice is changing the treatment approach format to better serve patients;
    A complete medical history focusing especially on risk factors related to caries, P gingivalis infection, and other aspects of oral health—for instance, medications that could cause xerostomia, heart-health factors, diabetes, osteoporosis, auto-immune disorders, inflammatory disorders, or impaired immune function;
    Testing to determine the composition of oral cultures, which could be a DNA test, a bioluminescence test, or some combination of tests;
    A hygiene exam followed by the dental exam;
    Discussion of a treatment plan based on risk factors and current damage;
    The prophylactic cleaning.

The big difference with the new exam structure is that you’ll have to restructure your personal time. You’ll be seeing each patient twice, instead of once, and your total time with patients will initially be quite a bit longer. Your hygiene team will also have to readjust, because the old pattern of imaging/cleaning/exam has been put in a different order.

The main benefit of this new schedule is that it will allow you to focus more on patient health and provide preventative services. After the first 6 months, most of your regular patients will have gone through the new intake procedure and will understand your new focus on treating the causes of caries and periodontal disease rather than just managing symptoms.