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THE NEXTDDS Student Ambassador Blogs

Public Health Literacy

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Oral health literacy is defined as the “degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic oral health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions”. Generally, it can be agreed that a direct relationship exists between literacy and health outcomes.  

It is a multidimensional concept and a shared responsibility between many sectors, including the patient and provider. At most U.S. dental schools, dental students provide care to many patients that are state insured, those with limited education, minorities, and having limited English proficiency – many of the determinants of oral health literacy. The students try to independently educate and positively influence so many of these individuals by providing messages to improve health literacy among patients and promote their health and wellbeing. However, there are many important factors to consider when teaching patients.  

As health care providers, we must be able to provide “science-based education to patients at all [literacy] levels about their oral health needs.” (Alice Horowitz) Imagine a time when you or a loved one was ill or had something wrong, and you have to depend almost entirely on someone else’s knowledge of information. It’s a daunting feeling and can leave us feeling very vulnerable. This is how many of our patients feel on a day to day basis. There are a few things that we can do to help them help themselves, however.  

Acknowledge the difference. We go through four years of dental school to get to where we are; our patients do not. Each individual is unique, and while some may have very high literacy rates, the reality is that patients we see in dental school often do not. We must be fully conscious of this in order to guide our patient education to be the most useful for our patients.  

Let them tell you how to teach. Personally, there are many times were I run through the same education spiel for each patient and ask at the end if that made sense or if there are any questions. However, what I have found to be more effective is having the patient practice how they would teach someone else what I just taught them. This way I am confident that they have understood the important concepts.  

Develop trust. Although educating on prevention is key, trust is what will help individuals practice it. Take the time to get to know the patient, their background, and the value they place on oral health. A perfect example is water fluoridation. Although we know fluoridation as a beneficial substance, not everyone feels the same way. By developing trust, it is easier to alter people’s mindset and educate them on the science behind it.  

Nationwide, there are many individuals that lack the understanding of oral health in the depth we do. Although there are other ideas that may help us better educate our patients, try utilizing some of the ones above and/or sharing with your peers by commenting below.  


1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2000. Healthy People 2010. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Originally developed for Ratzan SC, Parker RM. 2000. Introduction. In National Library of Medicine Current Bibliographies in Medicine: Health Literacy. Selden CR, Zorn M, Ratzan SC, Parker RM, Editors. NLM Pub. No. CBM 2000-1. Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.