Hygienist Carol Vander Stoep is hoping to break away from the old symptomatic treatment plan and treat a patient's oral health as the gateway to a healthier lifestyle.
Carol Vander Stoep, R.D.H., B.S.D.H., O.M.T., is not your average hygienist.
She is an advocate for change in dentistry and says it’s time to leave behind the simplistic decay theory “all of us” have embraced for too long. And it’s time for dentists and their patients to create a healthy life baseline that starts with the patient’s mouth.
Vander Stoep has written two books—Mouth Matters: How Your Mouth Ages Your Body and What YOU Can do About It and Primal Dentistry—and will shortly complete a video series designed to help dentists embrace a wider picture of whole body medicine, for which she believes dentistry plays a central role.
Yet she says her ascent into the field of dentistry was a bit serendipitous.
“I had been rambling around the University of Texas for about five years trying to figure out what I wanted to do,” she explains. “And hygiene was particularly suited for me, in that we really shouldn’t do repetitive things, or really small details at work—everything that defines a hygienist. But it just goes to show that you can make yourself do whatever it is.”
And Vander Stoep has done a good job of that.
Vander Stoep says that dental school trained dentists and hygienists to respond to symptomology, and to deliver reactive care. But more recently, both dentists and their patients are realizing that the mouth is the first line of defense when it comes to health. And patients increasingly want dentists and their staff to help them understand how to create a healthy life baseline that starts with their mouth.
“My primary advocacy involves a win for everyone,” she says. “For patients, that means less decay and repeated tooth breakdown, and the significant ensuing future dental and healthcare costs that are sinking our healthcare system.”
But she also advocates for more freedom for dentists. She says dentists know the healthcare model is changing, and that they can’t do what they’ve always done while continuing to be reimbursed in the same fashion. What she wants is for dentists to be able to spend less time on the production treadmill trying to stay financially afloat under what she says is a broken system.
“Many dentists sign up for 30 to 40 percent fee reductions,” Vander Stoep says. “How can a dentist keep up with family, their practice, and the latest in dental research and techniques? It has to be crushing. This neither serves their freedom to practice to their best level, nor does it serve their clients.”
Vander Stoep believes that the way for dentists to serve patients and keep them from future dental and healthcare expenditures while working less hard themselves depends on a different model that most dentists have yet to encounter.
This model, she says, involves far more early, consistent and repeatable diagnosis than dentists have been exposed to in dental school, as well as tooth rebuilding techniques that honor engineering principals.
"When the possibility of early detection and minimally invasive techniques have bypassed our patients, there are wonderful techniques most dentists have not yet discovered that would serve our patients better,” she says.
For example, she points to an increase in restorative failures as consumers are buying their way out of mercury-laden fillings. Why is that happening?
“It’s because more resin fillings are done than ever before,” Vander Stoep says. “The problem lies with our dental schools, which are slow to catch up with the requirements of new materials. Many of these fillings begin to fail before your patients even walk out of the door as the weak bond leaks and the composite filling shrinks.”
Vander Stoep says she wrote her first book, Mouth Matters, because she felt the time given to patients during office visits to help them better understand the connection between their mouth and the rest of their body wasn’t enough.
“[The book] is for the general population, to kind of understand how osteoporosis and smoking and oral cancer, and kidney problems and so on affects their teeth,” she says. “I’m just amazed at how fascinated the general public is with their oral cavity. They’re searching for answers, and having a hard time with it.”
The book is a holistic guide to reducing inflammatory stress, and to healthy aging that Vander Stoep says can add years to a person’s life, as well as life to their years. She points to the “big aesthetic push” a while back where dentists were looking to aesthetics as a way to build their practices.
“People were interested in that way before the selfie generation,” she says. “People are still interested in superficial stuff. But I would say there’s a large segment of the population who could care less about the aesthetics, and want to make sure their mouth is not leading to whole body disease.”
Vander Stoep says her life centers on outdoor activities. That includes body surfing in the ocean, kayaking and backpacking. But what grounds her the most, she says, is nurturing “the sacred 4.5 acres in the Texas hill country” where she lives.
“The needs of plants including soil science, nutrition and environment, run so parallel to human needs it sometimes staggers me,” she says.
Nevertheless, she admits there’s very little time when she’s not thinking about dentistry.
“I may not have come to dentistry through any overwhelming desire to be in this particular field, but the indefatigable curiosity and observational skills I was granted have served to serendipitously landed me in just the right place and time to do some real good,” Vander Stoep says.
Writing and advocating, she says, have put her in contact with creative and likewise curious mentors who have often researched and studied for decades how to untie the various knots currently encountered in the approach to dentistry.
“Had I had the confidence to train as a dentist decades ago, I wouldn’t have developed the broad perspective I have while still being grounded in the basic sciences underlying dentistry.”
And that would have been unfortunate.
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