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High-Tech Tools for Patient Education

How the digital armamentarium is helping dental professionals inform and motivate their patients.

Today’s modern dental offices provide dental hygienists with various ways to educate and motivate patients. Whether it’s an intraoral camera, dental viewer, or specialized dental software, most education delivery systems are simple to use and effective tools. These high-tech products can be used by themselves or in concert with other patient education devices. Today, total integration between innovative clinical and management software has been achieved, and the benefits for dental practitioners abound. Most importantly, these systems assist dental professionals in effectively communicating with their patients.

By incorporating these types of tools into practice, clinicians can strengthen the provider-patient relationship, encourage compliance, and, hopefully, improve outcomes.


A dental viewer is a portable, wireless, handheld unit that provides real time images for patient education. Patients hold the viewer while the clinician takes a live image or freezes and zooms in on an image (magnifying images up to three times) showing calculus deposits, caries, fractures, and fillings. Dental viewers do not connect to software or other equipment, and therefore require little training. Used only for live patient education, dental viewers do not store, print, or transfer images.


Intraoral cameras use a small visualization device to offer a closer look at the oral cavity. The cameras transfer magnified digital images from the oral cavity onto a screen, usually a laptop computer. Images are stored and saved using digital imaging software. The difference between an intraoral camera and a dental viewer is that the images are saved so they can be used to note changes to intraoral tissues or structures, and document progress at future appointments. They are also portable and lightweight.

Intraoral camera images can bring dental conditions to life, providing an opportunity for the dentist, dental hygienist, and patient to discuss treatment in detail. This is referred to as co-diagnosis.1 The magnification allows the patient to see intricate details of specific conditions that would not otherwise be visible or easily understood. The images can be used in many ways—to inform family members and insurance companies or to support a “wait-and-watch approach.” In some cultures, discussing treatment options with all necessary family members is important.

As long as patients sign a consent to meet Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations, images can printed for them to take home and discuss with family members. Intraoral images can also be used to monitor oral lesions for changes in size, color, and consistency or as a reference to check for healing, bleeding, or irritations caused by trauma to the area. They can also be instrumental when communicating with a referring specialist.2 Documented images are ideal in situations that have progressed from watch to active care. Patients can be shown past documented images of amalgams that had open margins which progressed to needing a crown or new restoration.


Software systems provide dental practices with the infrastructure needed to store patient information while meeting HIPAA requirements. Patient records typically include photographs, addresses, lists of family members, insurance benefit information, X-rays, treatment plans, periodontal charting results, and appointment history. Software systems can often create reports that track the dentist’s production, remind patients of dental hygiene recare appointments, and email patients video clips regarding their treatment. Software systems and/or electronic charting programs can also help dental hygienists assess periodontal health. They can make periodontal charting simple and efficient, increasing the probability of including this important assessment at every appointment, and providing patients with a consistent update on their periodontal health status.

In order to increase patient compliance and case acceptance, many offices use educational software systems to provide patients with valuable information about oral health and recommended treatments, usually in a video format. The educational materials can be used during a “show and tell session,” where patients can ask questions and participate in a discussion about the proposed treatment. Patients can visualize the results of their proposed treatment, such as crown coverage, tooth replacement, and gingival reduction, increasing case acceptance. These tools can also be used to promote esthetic options by showing patients the results of procedures, such as tooth whitening, diastema correction, and stain removal. Educational software systems can support patients in the decision-making process so they can provide informed consent.


The ability to use the patient’s own dental images with an educational software program to further enhance patient education can encourage treatment acceptance. Plus, the detailed education can help build trust between providers and patients. With the help of educational software programs, clinicians can also improve their skills in explaining complicated dental terms in layperson terminology. Patients will be more likely to accept treatment recommendations if they fully understand the risks and benefits.


Motivation is defined as the factor that activates a person to do something that will satisfy an identified need or desire. Although motivation is self-induced, clinicians can successfully manipulate the variables that may increase motivation. A motivated patient is a healthier, more informed patient.5 Table 1 provides strategies for encouraging motivation.

Dental patients usually enter a dental office with a varied degree of understanding about their present oral conditions, need for treatment, and treatment options.1 Demonstrating the present condition of the teeth (decay, incipient lesions, fractured amalgams, composites, oral and mucosal lesions, calculus, staining) is vital for treatment acceptance.

Patients who do not understand the proposed treatment, how it will help them, and the consequences of forgoing treatment are more likely to refuse the recommended course. Because people often respond better to images than words, the dental team should harness the power of images to educate patients.3 Learning what is most meaningful to the patient and working to help him or her fulfill those needs is paramount to motivation. When patients perceive they are in control of what is happening to them, communication and case acceptance may improve.3

First impressions are important to patient motivation, for example what does the office look like (modern/old)? Is the staff friendly and compassionate? This recognition begins with nonverbal communication as soon as the patient walks into the office. Motivational capacity is influenced by whether the environment is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.Pleasant feelings influence motivation to a higher degree.


Patients generally come into the office with three hidden concerns: time, pain, and cost, as well as overt concerns: health, function, and beauty.5 What is most meaningful to patients? Are they in pain? Is their health affected? Are they looking to improve the esthetics of their smile before a job interview? Failure to address these concerns directly can create patient doubt and compromise case acceptance.3 Dental professionals need to assist patients in determining which dental needs are most important. Utilizing intraoral cameras, dental viewers, and dental software opens up this communication process. These tools offer interactional pathways to improve listening and receive feedback, which can then be directed toward the oral health goal.


Most modern dental offices have an intraoral camera, dental viewer, or computer software system to assist in the daily management of the practice and provide patient education. Clinicians should utilize the technology available to help patients make informed decisions about their oral health. By using these patient education tools, clinicians may need to spend less time reinforcing treatment plans.6


    1. McArdle BF. Co-diagnosis in smile design: involving patients in the ownership of their outcomes. Dent Today. 2008;27:136–138.
    2. Clarkson JJ, McLoughlin J. Role of fluoride in oral health promotion. Int Dent J. 2000;50:119–128.
    3. Rempfer RK. Motivating patients to higher levels of oral health. Compend Contin Educ Dent. 2004;25:714–720.
    4. Hanaoka Y, Ueno A, Tsuzuki T, Kajiwara M, Minaguchi K, Sato Y. Proposal for internet-based Digital Dental Chart for personal dental identification in forensics. Forensic Sci Int. 2007;168:57–60.
    5. Cronenberger J. Motivating grumpy, sleepy, bashful. RDH. 1993;13(3):32–38.
    6. Acharya S, Goyal A, Utreja AK, Mohanty U. Effect of three different motivational techniques on oral hygiene and gingival health of patients undergoing multibracketed orthodontics. Angle Orthod. 2011;81:884–848.

From Dimensions of Dental Hygiene. April 2013; 11(4): 44, 46–47.

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