The issue of oral health literacy is a relatively new topic and it is important that we, as dental professionals, recognize the implications of oral health literacy in order to improve our patients’ preventive and dental treatment outcomes.

There was A National Call to Action to Promote Oral Health by Surgeon General Richard Carmona in 2003,22 the primary focus of which was to promote activities to overcome the public’s perception that oral health is less important than and separate from general health, including “enhancing oral health literacy.” In response to this Call to Action the American Dental Association’s (ADA’s) House of Delegates has adopted numerous oral health literacy–related resolutions and has embarked on a major initiative to help improve communication between patients and dental team members. Additional oral health literacy initiatives are being pursued by other dental professional organizations.

In the meantime, there are a number of strategies that have been used successfully by the health profession that dental professionals can use to help increase patients’ understanding of both verbal and written oral health information. This course has reviewed tips for recognizing behaviors that might indicate health literacy challenges and advice on implementing standard operating procedures that will assist all patients to more fully appreciate both verbal and written oral health information. Creating a welcoming environment, use of plain language, delivering information slowly, use of visual images, and the use of active listening skills are all useful strategies for improving communication between the dental professional and our patients. Using the “teach back” technique for checking patient comprehension has been documented to reduce errors and improve health outcomes in patients.29,30 This course also included information about and resources for checking the reading level of print materials intended for patients.

Working towards building trusting patient-provider relationships is an important “first step” in improving the effectiveness of oral health-related communications. In addition to the suggestions listed in this course, it is also worth noting that social and cultural factors also come into play when presenting health information. Understanding the cultural traditions of the people in your community and practice is important in order to present information in a way that respects cultural differences and positively impacts the ways in which oral health information is interpreted and accepted.