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A holistic approach to practicing dentistry: how does it work?

There are many different approaches to providing patients with dental treatment. We spoke to Marlene Teo who explained why she opened a dental practice that takes a holistic approach to treating patients.

Just before Covid-19 hit the world, I started a new dental clinic in Singapore called An Dental on January 18, 2020. (Yes, great timing I know.)

An is the Hanyu Pinyin translation of the mandarin word . It means peace and safety, and this name was chosen to represent dedication to providing holistic dental services in a peaceful, safe and personal environment to everyone who needs healing.

To me, the holistic approach involves providing support to the needs of the whole person, not just their dental health needs. The support should also consider their physical, emotional, social and spiritual wellbeing. So the consultation involves questions about their way of living and, with this sharing, we end up elucidating a lot of root causes of their dental issues and befriending our patients!

What made you think of a practice in this direction?

I have always felt that dentistry was never separate from the practice of medicine or people’s habits and lifestyle. All too often, I saw patients who were at their wits’ end because their teeth kept falling out despite seeking periodontal treatment and brushing crazily. Sometimes, they were made to feel ashamed for not brushing well enough when there was another underlying cause to their dental issue. For example, sometimes they had underlying systemic issues like pre-diabetes that had not been picked up, depression due to death of a loved one, lack of vitamin D, etc. All of these are risk factors for periodontal disease, so excellent oral hygiene is not a be-all and end-all to periodontal treatment.

As clinicians, we sometimes underestimate the impact of chronic stress on the body, which leads to systemic inflammation and impacts periodontal health as well. Chronic stress is also one of the factors that lead to bruxism and can lead to aches and pains in the jaw.

So I wanted to make sure that when we treat a patient, the treatment plan is never piecemeal but is well thought out. I wanted An Dental to provide a holistic dental treatment plan to get to the root of the problem and heal the patient in an environment that leaves them empowered and responsible for their own dental issues.

How did you identify the need?

It wasn’t something that I consciously identified.

It grew organically: patients started coming to see me as they got better and they started spreading the fact that they got better by word of mouth.

I think the main difference in the way I practice is that I really sit and listen to what the patient has to say at the first appointment. And with a bit of probing into their lives, we are able to elucidate the root cause of the inflammation. Sometimes, they have a dead-end job, sometimes they have a special needs kid, sometimes they have a husband who is sick. These chronic stresses use up a lot of nutrients in the body, and also lead to chronic inflammatory disease like diabetes or thyroid conditions.

Every system in the body is interconnected so there is a need for dentists to draw the patient’s awareness to dental issues and the systemic inflammatory link. If we go one layer deeper, we see that inflammation in the gums and excessive tension in the masseters is again very much related to chronic stress and over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system.

It is my wish and dream that all of us dentists will look at the patient as a person and not identify with them as a tooth or a mouth!

What multi-disciplinary aspects are available in your practice?

  1. Our clinic has a range of specialists and general practitioners that look after multidisciplinary aspects of dentistry. We are still looking for an orthodontist so hit me up if you know one who would fit our practice.
  2. We are also multidisciplinary in the “medical” sense as we often send patients for full body check-ups and blood tests if it looks like the patient has an undiagnosed medical condition. This could include thyroid conditions or diabetes. Osteoporosis may also be picked up when we place dental implants and the bone is really soft.
  3. Sometimes I give supplements like probiotics to enhance results of periodontal treatment and Vitamin D to enhance the immune system.
  4. Our treatment plan may also involve deep breathing exercises and/or yoga to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. I love the emotional, health and spiritual benefits of yoga and I wanted to bring the health benefits of this spiritual practice to my patients.
  5. In Singapore, there are many patients who are open to trying acupuncture or traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). If so, I refer my patients to an ex-dentist that has now become a TCM doctor. I believe that there is way more to eastern healing techniques than can be described by science at this moment!

What do your patients say?

Most of our patients are very receptive and very grateful. They might have lived their lives with seemingly separate issues like chronic pain, lethargy or depression. So when we link it up for them, it’s almost like the puzzle falls into place. There has been this innate knowing about their generalized poor health that they could never put into words; so, in general, the response is very positive. They feel very safe knowing that whatever issue they are having has a root cause and most are very enthusiastic about changing their lifestyle to rectify that dental issue.

Of course, there are detractors who just want that filling fixed or that tooth extracted, but these patients wouldn’t come to a place like An Dental anyway. The patients that seek our team out are usually very motivated to get into better health. The motto of our clinic is “As within, so without”. You can never look good and have great teeth if you are in poor health.

Challenges & opportunities?

The pandemic in 2020 was ironically both a challenge and also gave An Dental multiple opportunities to flourish.

Singapore went into lockdown for two months when we had barely started the practice so it was really unnerving to have to pay the overheads without any income. So that was extremely challenging.

However, Covid-19 also caused severe stress issues and people started grinding and clenching, which led to a lot of teeth cracking and fillings popping off. Stress-related periodontal issues were also a mile a plenty so our clinic has been really busy fixing these issues. It has also been deeply fulfilling when I teach patients breathing techniques and they come back and hold my hand and tell me how much better they feel because now they can sleep and feel so much more energized.

So in a way, 2020 has been weirdly challenging and fulfilling at the same time for An Dental!

I’m really honored that the ITI would be interested in our practice in Singapore (a tiny part of the world), and I’m so happy I got to share my practice philosophy here. If you have any questions you can look up AnDental on Instagram or our website AnDental.sg and I would be happy to share more!

Biography

Dr Marlene Teo is founder and director of An Dental. She is an American board-certified periodontist with a special interest in treating patients with dental phobia.

She has also completed the foundation course of ACNEM (Australasian College of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine). Nutritional and environmental medicine is the evidence-based approach towards the interaction of nutritional and environmental factors with human biochemistry to promote optimal health and well-being. She is a trained yoga teacher and has personally experienced the benefits of meditation to calm the body and soul.

To find out more about her, please visit: DrMarleneTeo.com