Addressing Medications' Impact on Oral Health

A senior man looking for his medication at the local pharmacy

Karen Lewis, Washington Dental Service Foundation, interviews Mary Pat O'Leary, RN

Health professionals are focused on successful care transitions, to improve patient health and reduce health care spending. Too often, oral health is not a part of the conversation, even though it's relevant to accomplishing both health and spending reduction. There's an easy way to weave it back in and help patients improve their oral—and overall—health.

Medication reconciliation is a key component of care transitions, so Aging and Disability Services (ADS) planner and oral health advocate, Mary Pat O'Leary, RN, decided it was an excellent opportunity to educate patients about the effects of medication on oral health and help them prevent oral disease and tooth loss.

Here's Mary Pat's approach. Maybe it will work for you!

Q: Why are you so passionate about educating people about oral health, especially during care transitions?

MPO: I feel privileged to have the opportunity to have access to dental care services and I know how important oral health is to our overall health and wellness. Many clients are not able to access dental care or oral health services. I have witnessed how this complicates chronic diseases they're managing and the loss of self-esteem that comes with oral disease.

Q: Transitioning from one location to another can be a chaotic and exhausting time. At what point do you find patients and caregivers most receptive to the information about medications/dry mouth and oral disease?

MPO: I believe it is important to plant the oral health seed whenever and wherever you can, but primarily during points of care transitions. Many clients transferring from one facility to home or other locations are often starting new medications, in addition to the ones they take regularly, and are unaware of the risk this may pose to their oral health. Dry mouth is a common side effect of many medications. If left untreated, dry mouth can lead to significant and rapid tooth decay. Educating patients and caregivers about this risk, and providing dry mouth management options during care transitions, helps people protect their oral health. Things to do include drinking more water throughout the day, using sugar-free gum or mints (especially those made with the natural sweetener xylitol), and avoiding alcohol and tobacco products.  

Q: What are some responses you've had from patients once they know the risks of medications on their oral health?

MPO: Many patients have told me they had no idea that over 400 commonly prescribed medications can cause dry mouth. Patients are very receptive to the information we provide. They tell me they plan to have a frank conversation with their medical provider to discuss how to manage the side effects of their medications.

Q: What types of patient education materials are available and where can other care transition professionals order them?

MPO: ADS developed an oral health self-management tool that features green, yellow, and red flags. These help educate clients to achieve optimum oral health. We also offer a low-literacy format. Care transitions coaches, social workers, and nursing staff bring these to home visits, as well as hospital visits. We've been contacted by agencies in other states that want to adopt our patient education tools for their programs.

Aging and Disability Services (ADS)—the Area Agency on Aging for Seattle-King County—and the Washington Dental Service Foundation have collaborated to educate residents about oral health and provide better access to dental services. For more information, visit the ADS Oral Health webpage and Seniors Oral Health.