Dental x-rays are an important diagnostic tool. They reveal oral health issues that could otherwise go unnoticed: areas of decay, bone loss, abscesses, tumours, and conditions of the root canal. Unfortunately, some people are wary of dental x-rays, dental practitioners aren’t always sure how to ease their concerns.
These tips can help you educate patients on the significant benefits and minimal risks associated with dental x-rays so they can make a well-informed decision about their care.
If you’ve worked as a dentist or dental hygienist in the last few years, you’ve probably heard it before:
Are dental x-rays safe? Can they cause thyroid cancer?
According to an article in Today’s RDH, much of the fear surrounding dental x-rays originates from a talk show several years ago. The show presented a link between the radiation from dental x-rays and thyroid cancer. Video clips shared widely through email and social media sites, sparking an increase in patients refusing x-rays out of concern for their health.
In truth, the link between dental x-rays and thyroid cancer is tenuous, and the show failed to explain how dental x-rays compares to other radiation sources (a dental x-ray is about 0.005 mSv of radiation, equalling less than one day of background radiation exposure.)
Regardless, this trend is a challenge to dental practitioners. The public is not well-informed about radiation, and not all practitioners are prepared to address their concerns. The absence of x-ray images can make it difficult to effectively diagnose and treat patients.
However, with the right approach and a bit of patience, many dentists and dental hygienists can help patients understand that dental x-rays are safe.
For many patients, visiting the dentist is unpleasant to begin with. The added uncertainty surrounding radiation can make the experience more frightening.
Your patience and empathy can make a world of difference in this circumstance. As always, it’s crucial to communicate openly with the patient and take time to explain things in a way they understand.
Understand that dental x-rays are not common everywhere in the world. Newcomers, along with older adults who have little experience with the dentist, may not be familiar with dental x-rays.
Acknowledge that you may have to take a different approach with patients of differing cultural backgrounds. It may help to have an interpreter explain the process to them.
Take time to assure your patients that you and your staff take measures to ensure that dental x-rays are as safe as possible. Explain the purpose of a lead apron, lead thyroid collar, and the ALARA principle for radiation exposure.
A 2017 study examined different approaches to informing patients about radiation exposure from x-rays and other imaging tests. According to this research, patients prefer to receive the information in both oral and written formals, along with a table showing how radiation exposure from the test compares to background radiation.
The average American receives about 620 mrem of radiation each year, half of which comes from natural background radiation. The radiation ‘dosage’ associated with dental x-rays is just 0.005 mSv, less than a single day’s worth of background exposure.
Making this comparison can help patients understand that dental x-rays are not something to fear. However, the information should be delivered with empathy and not to belittle the patient’s concerns.
It's human nature to concentrate on the main details of a situation. For example, if you were going in for an open-heart procedure, you would likely concern yourself with the surgeon’s track record. This particular specialist is the main part of the operation, but they receive assistance from other highly qualified professionals.
If you a love a movie, you make a point of remembering the director’s name, but not necessarily the editor or key grip, both of whom are likely also exceptional at their jobs. Let’s face it, there are very few specialists who work entirely alone, but it is often customary for the world to have only one person take a bow.
Veteran dental hygienist Candice Feagle attended a function awhile back and when mentioning what she did for a living, the person she spoke to replied, “Oh, you’re just a hygienist.” Most of us take pride in what we do and it was understandable that Candice had a negative reaction, though she kept it to herself. It wasn’t the first time this had happened to her or other people in this profession.
However, after mulling it over the next day, she decided to write about the incident for Dentistry IQ.
The vast majority of dental hygienists worked hard to earn their certification, and continue to enhance their knowledge by taking advantage of related learning opportunities.
"Oh, you're just a hygienist"
Like any profession, some hygienists are content with their current routine, but there is room to grow in this role. Candace felt at several points that she was indeed “just” a hygienist, which prompted her to expand her career possibilities. Most recently, Candace chose to pursue a bachelor’s degree in allied dental health, allowing her to experience the nonclinical side of the profession, an aspect many patients do not realize exists.
The average client probably doesn’t realize how much their hygienist does for them. Is it the dentist who reviews their medical history with them and goes out of their way to help ease their anxiety? Does the dentist perform oral cancer screenings, sterilize the equipment, conduct fluoride treatments, take blood pressure, or do periodontal charting?
They can, but in the vast majority of cases, the hygienist performs these as well as other key aspects of a dental appointment.
As Candace also points out in the article, motivated hygienists can go on to become public health professionals, researchers, administrators, entrepreneurs…you name it!
Not every job will make you a millionaire or put your name up in lights. Sometimes the greatest satisfaction comes from knowing you are making an important contribution to a person’s health and well-being.
“Having been in the dental profession for the last 26 years, I can honestly say I love my profession...I know the varied abilities and diverse opportunities being a hygienist represents.”
The pride Candice expresses in that statement makes it clear she knows the value of what she does. And that’s just fine with her.