I consider myself first and foremost a ‘consumer’ of health care. I have also served time on committees as a patient representative over many years and have advocated for patients on a number of health issues. I know that this makes me more knowledgeable about the health care system than the average ‘consumer’. While I am not a health care provider, I have observed the system as it functions, or not, in many ways. A recent experience with my mother led me to start expanding my thinking about what primary care is and who provides it.
Like many people I have always tended to think of the primary care provider as my doctor, maybe a nurse, but probably my physician. In spite of being knowledgeable about health care, I have always been slightly myopic in my perspectives on who provides primary care services. As I’ve continued my education in this area, I’ve come to learn much more about the role of dental hygienists in particular as primary care providers.
My mother lives out of the area in a care home. She is elderly and has dementia. It is often very difficult to ascertain what beyond her diagnosis is going on with her. I do not fault any of the doctors or nurses that help her each day, but when she began acting strangely a while back they were unable to find the cause of the problem. I was lamenting this to some of my colleagues with whom I have worked on committees and one suggested that I take her to the dental office because sometimes problems can manifest orally that are not detected by regular health care staff, who are not oral care experts, at care homes.
I contacted a dental office in the area and made an appointment with their dental hygienist. Fairly immediately she was able to ascertain that there was a degree of gum disease and that a couple of cavities were likely causing my mother some discomfort, a pain she is unable to articulate.
Through a series of appointments and over time we’ve either solved or are well on our way to solving these problems (all common in the elderly as I have learned). Even with her worsening dementia, I can tell my mother feels better and that her quality of life has improved because of these interventions. She is healthier overall. No one can ‘cure’ her dementia of course but it was a dental hygienist who was able to offer her relief and ensure that the quality of her life was improved as a result of the care she provided. I have also come to learn that primary care provider is not necessarily the first point of contact but rather someone who also champions disease prevention and health promotion. Because oral health serves as great clue for larger disease process in the body, ensuring you have good oral care is paramount in staying healthy. I consider this lesson a blessing for me and one that I can take forward in all aspects of my health.
Thank you to the dental hygiene professional who helped us and thank you to the profession on the whole. I will champion your work as primary care providers at every possible turn.