Jo Dawson asks if celebrating Valentine’s Day with patients can encourage positive behaviour change.

As DCPs we are privileged to work in the business of healthy smiles, sharing our knowledge to improve the oral health of our patients and teaching them skills that can actually improve life outcomes. Good oral health and the simple act of smiling have been proven beneficial in so many ways.

How awesome is smiling?

The British Society of Periodontology (BSP) states, “Great gum health is important for your smile, comfort, confidence and quality of life. In addition, there has been a great deal of research about possible effects of gum disease on your general health.”

As dental professionals, we know how important oral health is as part of our overall health and wellbeing. Keeping a healthy smile is also key for social and emotional health. Poor oral health is linked to diabetes, heart disease, adverse pregnancy outcomes, stroke and respiratory conditions.

On a happier note, research has shown that smiling can reduce anxiety, improve relationships and even lower your risk of developing heart disease. There are seven psychological and physical benefits to smiling, such as:

  • Endorphins are released
  • Alleviates stress
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Immune system strengthening
  • Enhances endurance
  • Reduces pain
  • It boosts your mood.

We’ve all seen it in practice. A nervous patient who hasn’t been to the dentist for many years plucks up the courage and ends up in your chair. You gradually build up their trust over the course of treatment, and by the last appointment when they look in the mirror to assess the results their confidence has grown to match their improvement in their health, function and aesthetics.

Maybe now they will go for a promotion at work because they don’t feel the need to cover their mouth when they speak, or perhaps they will be more relaxed socially and smile/laugh without being embarrassed, perhaps even punching above their weight in the love department! It could be that their diabetes is now better controlled with many positive health effects. Whatever your patients’ story, you will have witnessed first-hand the awesome power of a healthy smile.

What can we learn from St Valentine?

February 14 is Valentine’s Day, named after St Valentine, who was thought to have been a Roman priest in the third century AD. He may have arranged secret marriages when they were banned or perhaps he died helping prisoners escape poor treatment – there are varying narratives. It was suggested that he penned a love letter and signed it, “From your Valentine”, giving root to the tradition of exchanging love notes and cards on the day. Either way, he is inextricably associated with love and kindness in modern culture. So whether you see yourself as an incurable romantic or think Valentine’s Day is a con made up by retailers, how can we, and should we enjoy celebrating it somehow with our patients?

How will you share your love of smiles this Valentine’s Day?

Am I suggesting that you send a Valentine’s card/ wish to all your patients? Should we hand out a small token/ present on a patient’s arrival at the practice? Maybe! It could be a good bit of fun for some variety in marketing on social media or an e-shot perhaps, or even just be used to get conversation started with new patients. So why not use Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to encourage patients to build better skills and habits by improving motivation?

Showing themselves love: patients as part of the dental team

I had the privilege of attending some brilliant lectures at the BSDHT Oral Health conference in Bournemouth this past November. There was a graph repeatedly bandied about by a number of eminent academics (including by specialist periodontist Ian Dunn, and also the phenomenal hygienist Claire McCarthy who has too many letters after her name to fit here!). This graph demonstrates the effectiveness of step one of BSP clinical guidelines (involving the OHI explaining the importance of what patients can do at home to maintain good oral health and prevent periodontitis). These efforts and measures of ‘self-love’ and care, help the entire dental team by saving everyone time and money, meaning our efforts at oral health promotion are critical to lend support.

What to emphasise to patients

‘Tell Show Do’ is a good starting place for showing patients how to give their oral health some love. However, according to Tim Newton (professor of psychology applied to dentistry at King’s College London) just telling people to floss isn’t going to cut it to encourage the most effective behaviour change. There are three important factors in building habits: having the tools and skills to carry out the task, understanding why it is beneficial to them (building a new habit takes time and effort so why bother?) and most critically giving patients a cue to build the habit realistically into their daily routine.

  • This all means we need to:
  • Listen to the patient about their lifestyle.
  • Look into their daily routine for ‘habit-stacking’ opportunities.
  • Making it easy for them to get an instant reward.

Cue, craving, action, reward

A positive behavioural ‘cue’ to encourage change could be as simple as leaving the floss packet next to the toothbrush so you floss before you brush, or pinning up a brushing chart next to the bathroom sink.

This should hopefully encourage a craving: the feeling of being motivated and wanting to carry out the task.

Which should hopefully lead to ‘action’: the positive doing of the task.

And finally, we should end on ‘reward’: whether that’s a gold star on the flossing chat or affirmation from the dental team that they are helping to prevent future problems – this should encourage the patient to repeat the behaviour in the future.

Further details and more ideas can be found in the quick read Atomic Habits by James Clear.

Keep it positive and snappy

Finally, it is worth reiterating that giving lectures or ‘telling off’ to patients regarding oral health habits is not effective in encouraging behavioural change. Instead, we should focus on the patient having a positive experience and motivating them in a happy way to show their oral health some love!

  • Finally, here’s a smile challenge for you this Valentine’s Day:
  • Making sure that patients know their beautiful smile is contagious.
  • Setting them a challenge to take care of theirs, and show it off as much as possible!
  • Whatever you do to celebrate professionally and personally on February 14, 2024, have fun – and share the love!