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Cleanings are overrated

“I wash my car every week. I never miss. The thing is spotless! But I’m NOT going to change my oil.”

I had a patient that recently presented for a cleaning. For regular recall appointments we do a thorough examination at least once per year. And by “thorough examination” I mean having me come in with my very geeky 6x magnification glasses and ridiculous headlight and look over the teeth, the lips, cheeks, tongue, inside, outside up and down. This patient explained that since she no longer had dental insurance that she did not want to have an exam. She just wanted a cleaning. She was O.K. paying for a smooth, minty feeling that lasts for a day or two. But she didn’t want to see the doctor.

I completely understand about trying to save money. Dental care is expensive. It feels even more expensive because it’s the kind of thing that people don’t want to pay for. If I’ve got to pay for it, I’d rather buy a new cell phone or some new shoes. I don’t know a lot of people that walk into the office just itching to hand over hard earned cash.

The problem is that if the patient really wants to save money, she ought to skip the “cleaning” and keep up with the exams! If she wants to spend less money at the dentist’s office, her best bet is in prevention. Polishing your teeth doesn’t actually prevent problems. Polishing removes the biofilm on your teeth, but a biofilm re-develops in a matter of minutes. Polishing your teeth and making them minty fresh is more like the bow on a gift box. It’s nice and it feels good, but it’s not really the point.

We should probably stop calling those appointments cleanings. The hope is that patients are doing a good job cleaning their teeth every day. A better name for those appointments is recall or preventive maintenance. 6 month recalls (and 4 month or 3 month) are about catching problems when they’re small. Recalls are like the “regular maintenance” that your car requires. The hygienist spends a bunch of quality time removing any buildup of tartar and plaque, but they’re also taking a hard look at all of your teeth. Then, when I come in the hygienist lets me know if she has seen any areas that she’s concerned about. When I’m doing an exam I look at everything (teeth, gums, lips, cheeks, tongue, etc.) under high magnification so I can diagnose problems.

For people who don’t have active gum disease, preventive maintenance appointments are about catching dental problems when they’re small. They’re a great way to remind patients the best way to take care of their teeth, and a lovely way to tell them when they’re doing a good job. For people with active gum disease it’s an important part of evaluating the severity of bone loss around the teeth and whether we’ve been able to slow or stop the progression of bone loss.

So next time you make an appointment to spend some time with your dental hygienist, don’t tell everyone you’re off to “have your teeth cleaned.” Let them know that you’re scheduled for your preventive maintenance appointment, but you’re still pretty psyched about that squeaky clean teeth feeling.

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If you’re looking for a dentist in Saginaw, we’re always happy to accept new patients! You can request an appointment online or call the office at (989) 799-9133. And, as always, you can email me at alan@meadfamilydental.com. I always answer my own emails!