Patient Education!

The single most important topic.

Dental Sleep Medicine is an industry that is taking off in leaps and bounds. Many dentists in the US and abroad are becoming educated on sleep airway and the importance of a good night’s sleep. Some of these dentists are offering oral appliance therapy to their patients and very few are solely focusing on dental sleep medicine with their patients. Regardless, if an office is occasionally offering oral appliances or is exclusively dental sleep medicine, patient education is the key to long term success.
In 1960, dental insurance companies offered benefits to enrolled subscribers which was equivalent to approximately $1,000. Today, most dental insurance companies offer the exact same benefits as in 1960. In 56 years most dental insurance companies have not increased benefits to keep up with inflation and the cost of living. How has the dental field survived? How have dental offices become successful? Only doing simple cleanings and yearly exams? NO. For decades dental educational entities have focused on one important factor…patient education! The dental profession learned early on it is imperative to educate patients regarding needed treatment especially when needed treatment costs extend past insurance benefits.
Patients that are in need of oral appliance therapy need it whether insurance is involved or not and an educated patient will make educated decisions. When patients understand they may have benefits with their medical insurance for oral appliance therapy, the focus tends to shift toward benefits instead of the need for therapy. You can reinforce the good news that your solution for their problem has benefit with most insurance policies, but the real message needs to be that treating their airway is more important than whether the oral appliance is part of their insurance contract.
Here are 3 ways to focus on educating your patients and empowering them to make educated decisions toward therapy.

  1. Communicate and educate keeping your patient as the main focus. As dental team members we are given many tasks and responsibilities which can bog down our daily thoughts and actions. It is important to keep your patient’s perception in mind and focus on what he or she may feel is important. For example, if a patient asks why sleep is a topic of conversation in the dental practice, a typical response may be “because we make oral appliances for patients with sleep apnea”. This could be perceived by the patient that sleep is a conversation topic because it’s a sales tactic instead of a genuine concern. So if the question of why sleep is a topic comes up, a great response would be “because our office is concerned with your overall health and wellness.”
  2. Educate patients before referring them for a primary diagnosis. It is appropriate for a sleep physician to diagnose patients with sleep breathing disorders as a result of a sleep test. Therefore, referring patients to obtain a diagnosis is common for most dental sleep medicine dentists. It is important that the patients understand the process and, depending on what is diagnosed, oral appliances may be a great therapy option. Dentists complain that after referring patients out most don’t come back and most are only given Positive Airway Pressure (PAP) therapy as a treatment option. So educate your patients before referring them out. Hand them an oral appliance brochure. The focus of a high risk non-diagnosed patient is to obtain a diagnosis with mention of oral appliances as a possible option.
  3. Educate normal sleep study results versus patient results. In dentistry, patients respond better when they understand what is wrong and why it needs to be fixed. The same should be said for sleep. Most obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) diagnosed patients cannot explain AHI, SPO2 levels or percentage of N3 sleep. Most of these patients are only told if they have apnea or not and what level of severity was diagnosed. If we give patients the opportunity to learn what normal sleep looks like and compare their sleep measures to that standard, we will help patients lean toward therapy.

Educating patients is the single most important topic. Four out of four of my immediate family members have been diagnosed with a sleep breathing disorder. Only one originated from a medical entity, was diagnosed with mild OSA and was told no treatment was needed. As a family member and dental professional, I couldn’t let that go and talked with them until all four were diagnosed; now they are all in OSA therapy. My point is medical offices do not have time to evaluate every patient for sleep breathing disorders and unless a patient’s chief concern is sleep breathing, most times sleep will never be discussed. WE dental team have time! WE can have conversations with patients and screen for this! WE can educate the importance of obtaining a diagnosis! WE can educate patients to make educated decisions toward therapy!
Editor’s Note: This Sleep Team Column will be dedicated to the team and provide practical tips and resourceful information. Let us know your specific issues by email to:, while we can’t respond to every individual. Your feedback will help us create the most useful Sleep Team Column we can!

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