Health Education Principles and Theories

As stated previously, patient education is paramount to acceptance of treatment, restoration placement and subsequent compliance with daily oral hygiene. For this reason, it is important for dental assistants and dental hygienists to be versed in concepts such as health education, health literacy and how individuals make the decision to practice daily homecare.5

Health education can be defined as instruction regarding health behaviors that bring an individual to a state of health awareness, such as teaching a patient the proper flossing technique around a newly-placed bridge. Health promotion is a process that informs and motivates people to adopt healthy behavior to enhance their health and prevent disease.2 An example of health promotion would be a dental office providing samples of floss threaders so they’re visible to patients while they are in the waiting room.

Health promotion is similar to health education but is geared more toward motivating people to practice healthy behaviors. In contrast, the intention of health education is to have the patient gain accurate knowledge about healthy behaviors and lifestyles. Both health promotion and education are methods used to modify detrimental behaviors and promote healthy ones.2

Health education and health promotion complement each other and are ways to increase health literacy, which is the capacity available to an individual to obtain, process, and understand basic health principles.2,6,7 Health literacy is dependent on individual and systemic factors6 (Figure 1) that affect a patient’s ability to access dental care, inform providers of health history and engage in daily oral hygiene regimens. It is of the utmost importance that dental assistants and dental hygienists provide information in an easy, comfortable chairside manner with patients.

Figure 1. Factors Influencing Health Literacy.

Diagram showing factors influencing health literacy.

Dental health education theory suggests that although a patient may be educated on a particular health behavior, that knowledge will not positively impact dental health until the patient changes the behavior and it becomes a habit. A behavior change is simply changing a behavior, such as decreasing the amount of sugar in one’s diet, whereas a habit is a behavior that becomes automatic, such as daily brushing. Although dental hygienists may provide an effective presentation that the patient understands, that does not guarantee the patient will practice the dental health behaviors discussed. Therefore, it is necessary to change a person’s values regarding the behavior before the behavior is changed. Values are the ideas and beliefs a person possesses that influence behavior. A person may develop values early in life from family, teachers, or other influential people from whom that person seeks love and acceptance. Values generally must first be changed if behavior is to change. If dental providers could change values that the population holds toward dental health, they could dramatically decrease if not totally eliminate suffering from dental diseases.2 Unfortunately, changing values is a bit of a challenge.