The Changing Face of Dental Professionals
One major shift that has taken place in the last 60 years is a movement away from the small, two-person dental office that used to be the norm. In 1950, the typical composition of a dental office was a practicing dentist with a single assistant: of all the dental professionals working in the country at that time, just over half were actual dentists. By 2012, the total number of professionals working in dentistry had increased by nearly 600%, but only 20% of these personnel were dentists, representing a huge increase in dental hygienists and other support staff.
The Move Toward Preventative Care
In the mid twentieth century, the field of dentistry revolved around disease-based care: the majority of a dentist’s work was responding to and correcting dental problems experienced by patients, such as filling cavities and extracting diseased teeth. Diseased teeth were common, with the average child in 1971 having roughly 7 teeth that were diseased, filled, or missing. Thanks in part to the widespread addition of fluoride to the country’s supply of drinking water, that number had fallen to 2 by 2004.
In addition to fluoride, the last few decades have seen a shift in public attitudes toward dental health: the latter half of the twentieth century saw more Americans becoming diligent about their oral health and scheduling regular dental check-ups and cleaning, although that upward trend seems to have leveled off in the early 2000s. Coverage of dental services under health insurance has also increased, making regular care an affordable option for more Americans. As a result, the overall focus of dental practice has shifted from the treatment of disease to preventative measures that enhance overall oral health and decrease the likelihood of experiencing disease later on.
The Dental Needs of Older Adults
Now more than ever, older adults are at the core of a dental practice. Due in part to the general increase in dental care and health across the population, fewer young people are seeking treatment for dental problems. As the incidence of childhood tooth decay falls, that trend of improved oral health carries over into adulthood, leading to a generation of young patients who overwhelmingly rely on preventative care. At the same time, older adults who did not have access to such preventative treatments in their early years continue to experience problems, along with those exacerbated by the aging process.
Dry mouth, periodontitis, and root and coronal caries are common dental issues for older adults, and the impairments to memory and cognition that sometimes accompany aging can make it increasingly difficult for some seniors to maintain regular self-care dental habits like brushing and flossing teeth. Prescription medications and co-occurring medical conditions can also impact a patient’s dental health and their response to treatment. Because aging patients may show an increased sensitivity to anesthetics and other drugs used in dentistry, great care should be taken when treating older adults.
Digital Systems: Better, Faster Treatments
Dentists that use digital impressions, 3-D printers, smart sterilizers, or practice holistic dentistry are seeing an upsurge in new patients. Dentists who stay ahead of the curve and provide patients with these new options not only provide a better patient experience, these technologies make dental appointments shorter and allow more patients to be treated within the same time frame – a worthy investment.