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Dental literacy brings smiles at Naval Hospital Bremerton

Two military health personnel wearing masks Servicing smiles with smiles…Capt. Mary Elizabeth Neill, board certified staff periodontist assigned to Branch Health Clinic Bangor, leans on assistant Ms. Naomi Padilla, dental technician, as they team up to improve every patient’s oral health care with timely treatment and shared knowledge centered on empowering all their patients to make healthy choices to increase their overall well-being (Official Navy photo by Douglas H Stutz, NHB/NMRTC Bremerton public affairs).

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"If you’re not true to your teeth, your teeth will be false to you."  That old dental proverb is nothing to smirk about.

With October designated as Health Literacy Month for the Military Health System, the Navy Dental Corps at Naval Hospital Bremerton (NHB) in Washington reminds every one of the need to know as much as possible about their own oral health care.

For Navy Capt. Mary Elizabeth Neill, board certified staff periodontist assigned to Branch Health Clinic Bangor, sharing knowledge is centered on empowering patients to make healthy choices to increase their overall well-being. 

“Knowledge is power,” Neill said, noting that public health statistics in her specialty area of periodontics are staggering. “Most dental disease is preventable. Untreated dental disease can be physically debilitating and emotionally scarring.

Half of American adults – those 64.7 million 30 years and older – suffer from gum disease, with 47 % having periodontitis, which can result in tooth loss.

”We as a nation have a chronic dental disease crisis, which may be influencing other major inflammatory diseases,” Neill noted. “Health literacy is a powerful tool. I truly believe in the power of information, but that information must resonate with the patient and compel action.  I spend a good portion of my dental evaluations in conversation with my patients so I can understand what is important to them and where they are in terms of self-care. Healthy habits focusing on prevention directly contributes to the fitness and readiness of our force.”

By educating patients, Neill added, they in turn become empowered using strategies which they can implement and control. “We essentially become partners in a therapeutic approach to their disease and the goal of gaining stability and maintaining health.”

Typical teachable moments during an examination might focus on the connection between diet/nutrition and dental health; the role of tobacco and nicotine products; stress; suboptimal oral hygiene (no flossing), and other factors that contribute to more aggressive dental disease. Neill pointed out that they can also include the connection between bacteria and inflammation in the mouth as risk factors, in heart/pulmonary disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and adverse pregnancy outcomes.

According to preventive dentistry expert Navy Lt. Cmdr. Justin Watson sharing such insights with patients helps reinforce the importance of reducing oral disease risks. “Preventative insights on patients’ oral health are often tailored specifically for that patient based upon the finding of the yearly exam,” Watson said.

“For example, if the patient is at high risk for cavities due to a sugary diet and poor brushing technique, the dentist will typically share the disease process that led to the new cavities found at the dental exam. Then a preventive treatment plan is presented to the patient which typically involves oral hygiene instructions and nutritional counseling.”

In Neill’s clinical practice a method called Motivational Interviewing is used to reach patients on the topic of prevention. 

“The goal is to increase motivation to improve patient’s oral hygiene behaviors as well as providing a framework for delivering diet, tobacco cessation, stress reduction, and alcohol advice,” she noted. “This tool is very collaborative and patient-centered which builds on trust and establishes a strong patient-dental professional relationship.”

Dental health and wellness is not just centered on the prevention of cavities and explaining the need to brush and floss regularly. The Navy’s dental readiness classifications are an integral gauge of every command’s operational readiness.

The validated and reliable classification system used by Navy dentistry is basically set up to screen large populations and predict dental emergencies that might occur in the next 12 months.

“We focus on treating these patients and mitigating risk to mission,” Neill said. “This is extremely important to us as an expeditionary force where there may not be any dental assets forward. Navy dentists have always been keenly focused on operational readiness.”

Neill, Watson, and the rest of the dental team at NHB and Branch Health Clinics Bangor and Everett also in Washington ensure ongoing support for the Navy surgeon general priority of producing force medical readiness and medical force readiness, one smile at a time.

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