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Ian Sherriff, BEM. MA. DMS. CQSW. DiPCll

Academic Partnership Lead for Dementia, University of Plymouth

Professor Christopher Tredwin

Head of Peninsula Dental School, University of Plymouth

New guidance has been produced to help dentists offer people living with dementia a better experience when visiting their practices.

Dental practices across the UK can play an increasingly pivotal role in the broader care offered to people living with dementia. Not only do dentists see patients on a regular basis and can spot changes in their health and demeanour, but they can also flag up concerns that may otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Professor Christopher Tredwin, who is Head of Peninsula Dental School at the University of Plymouth and a practising dentist, points out that while people go to the GP when they are ill, they often attend the dental surgery when they are ‘well’ as part of routine check-ups.

“Dentists see people over and over again and see how people develop over the years,” he says. “When you see people routinely you can watch for changes and adapt to those changes. A key change we see as a dental profession is dementia; we can be one of first to recognise those changes in patients and become an early ‘screen’ and be able to say if something is different and look at how can we help.”

Patient referral

That means dentists can adapt their approach to people who already have a dementia diagnosis, but also refer patients to other healthcare professionals for further help. There is also a recognition that dental practices can be stressful places to visit, so an understanding of how to respond to patients with dementia can help improve their experience.

The University of Plymouth’s dental school was set up in 2007 and, with its NHS partner Peninsula Dental Social Enterprise, has a key mission to reach out to all sectors of the community, including people living with dementia. A driving force in raising awareness and knowledge in that area has been Ian Sherriff, the university’s Academic Partnership Lead for Dementia, who lectures and conducts research on dementia.

I began to think about how we can make dentists, dental nurses and receptionists more aware of the issues that people living with dementia and their families have.

Ian Sherriff

Today, the university has a reputation for its research, both clinically and socially in dementia and also its pioneering approach in making all students aware of issues around dementia. Sherriff explains: “We raise issues such as legal aspects, signs and symptoms, how to diagnose dementia and hear from people living with the condition as well as what it is like to be a carer.”

Dementia-friendly dentistry

Sherriff reflects that a few years ago, not many people thought about those with dementia and recalled a conversation with a carer who could not secure dental care for her husband as he was ‘disruptive’.

“He was a man in his 80s whose long-term memory was about gas and air, drills, and seeing a dentist with a mask on his face was not a good memory for him,” he says. “I began to think about how we can make dentists, dental nurses and receptionists more aware of the issues that people living with dementia and their families have.”

It brought about a new approach on how the university trained its dental students, including producing a project on what they saw as a ‘dementia-friendly dental surgery’. A resulting walkthrough video on the subject was picked up by a designer of dental surgeries and equipment and the ideas subsequently factored into future dental surgery design.

Guidance for practices

The latest development is to produce detailed guidance on how dental practices can improve the experience for people living with dementia and their carers. The dementia-friendly guide, which will be distributed through NHS England to all dentists and dental teams, provides information on how to improve the journey of people with dementia.

Featuring a foreword by Angelia Rippon, the co-chair of the Prime Minister’s Champion Group on Dementia, and illustrations by Private Eye cartoonist Tony Husband, the guide encourages dentists to put dementia considerations high on their agendas.

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