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Oral health being held back by low literacy levels

A leading UK charity has expressed concern after research linked low literacy levels to problems with oral health in Britain. Two separate studies linked aspects of oral health with adult literacy, causing British dentists to rethink how they approach patients, and how best to apply dental marketing strategies.

The studies looked at two different aspects of oral health. The first focused on dental anxiety, or the feelings of fear that going to the dentist can cause. Researchers found a direct correlation between dental anxiety and the ‘oral health literacy level’, measured using the Rapid Estimate of Adult Literacy in Dentistry, of the test subjects.

This heightened dental anxiety had knock-on effects. Not only were the test subjects with low oral health literacy more likely to be afraid of going to the dentist, but this also caused their children’s oral health to suffer.

The second study looked at how well patients kept appointments. This study found that “individuals who use fewer sources of oral health information, a subset of health literacy skills, are more likely to fail to show for dental appointments”.

In both cases, how literate the patients were affected their oral health. This is worrying news for UK dentists. The most recent Skills for Life Survey, conducted by the UK government, showed that around 15 per cent of UK adults have a literacy level below that of the average 11-year-old.

Dr Nigel Carter, chief executive of leading dental charity the British Dental Health Foundation, said: “Oral health information can be a little bit like a game of jargon busting. Some of the terms are quite technical, and given the findings of the research and the Skills for Life Survey, it is clear for many people they will simply go over their head.”

This means that dentists will need to look closely at the dental marketing material they are providing, and make sure it is not too mired in technical language and medical “jargon” that can potentially confuse patients.

Dental care should be available to all, so it is worrying to think that a section of the UK public is missing out because of issues with literacy. Dental healthcare professionals should make every effort to ensure their material is written as understandably as possible.

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