DATE: Oct 25, 2016
AUTHOR: Sharon Boyd, RDH, BS

The definition of "oral health" as we know it has been redefined. This past September at a worldwide summit in Poland, the FDI World Dental Federation redefined the term under the oversight of the Vision 2020 Think Tank.

The FDI conferred with dental health professionals, patients, government institutions and the greater public health community to determine what aspects of dental health awareness needed to be addressed. How will this new definition affect dental hygienists?

A Universally Applicable Definition

The new terminology, as reported in a press release published by the American Dental Association (ADA), states that oral health encompasses the overall wellness, self-esteem, emotional and functional needs of individuals regardless of where they live. Necessary daily tasks such as speech, dietary habits, emotions, confidence and risk of pain can all be influenced by the state of a person's mouth. If a person's oral health is good, this positively impacts his/her habits and life. On the flip side, one's quality of life may be negatively impacted when oral health interferes with any of these everyday essentials and well-being.

Another factor that is included in the new definition involves the patient's psychological health. The look or feel of a smile may contribute to social or mental well-being. Community values and a person's perception and expectations for himself or herself are another factor.

The Future of the Redefinition

Over 200 national dental associations across 130 countries, including the ADA, adopted the new definition. Ultimately, the new terminology was introduced to help with the development of a standardized method of assessing and measuring data globally, according to the FDI.

As such, it will drive future health policies at all levels through the use of a "measurement toolbox." This toolbox will be available in 2017.

What Dental Hygienists Have to Say

Some in the RDH community feel that the definition is a step in the right direction toward overall health strategies; however, some are disappointed that the change does not specifically address the oral-systemic health connection. For instance, it is more difficult for a patient with diabetes who has severe periodontal disease to manage blood sugar levels than for a patient without periodontal disease. Conversely, well controlled blood sugar levels help to reduce the impact of periodontal disease and help improve treatment outcomes for patients with diabetes.

Others plan to start implementing the definition into clinical practice by expanding their health history survey. One dental hygienist says that she asks her patients "to give their smile a number from 1-10," and that by doing so, they change from saying they don't like something to elaborating on specifics. This allows the dental team to take other factors into consideration when assessing dental needs and proposing specific treatment. The focus shifts from being on the teeth to emphasizing quality of life.

Dental hygienists can consider how the emotions and self-confidence of their patients play a huge role in determining long-term oral health goals, regardless of what the patient's physical needs may or may not be. The health of the gums also can significantly impact a person's level of confidence and smile.

Dental hygienists should consider a patient's physically- and emotionally-driven goals in relation to clinical findings and medical screenings. Overall oral health significantly impacts an individual's self-confidence.

Here are a few examples of areas you should discuss with your patient:

  • How do you feel about the appearance of your teeth?
  • Do you feel that your dental health impacts your ability to maintain a balanced diet?
  • Are there recent changes in your medical history or prescriptions that may impact your overall wellness?
  • Is there anything you would like to change about your smile?

As you continue to see a correlation in the dental health and overall wellness of your patients, this new definition may improve the quality of care for patients on a global scale.


  • The FDI redefined "oral health" in the hopes of raising awareness of specific needs on a global scale.
  • Oral wellness encompasses the emotional aspects, confidence and ability of the patient to perform everyday activities.
  • Concepts regarding health are influenced by one's personal experiences, including one's environment.

Why It's Valuable

As preventive dental health experts, dental hygienists can play a primary role in improving and maintaining a patient's morale, health and quality of life. The new FDI definition has a direct impact on the approach we can take for treatment planning and considering non-traditional patient factors.