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Carol Bradley Bursack, Published July 25 2010

Bursack: Don’t ignore referral to see dentist

Dear Carol: I took my mother to the dentist, and he found an area in her mouth that worried him.

He suggested we have her regular doctor take a look. Couldn’t he have just given her a prescription? It’s hard to get Mom to these appointments.

– Bill

Dear Bill: Often a good dentist will spot a potential problem and refer a patient to his or her doctor. This is the case with most good medical people. Healthy people often see their dentist more often than their medical doctor because they go for dental cleanings every six months, and they may only see their doctor once a year, unless they have an illness. Therefore, the dentist may spot a problem earlier than the doctor.

A friend of mine was referred to her doctor by her psychologist because the psychologist was suspicious that a physical illness may be adding to my friend’s psychological problems.

Similarly, the results of a recent study, done at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, showed promise that doctors may be able to detect early signs of Alzheimer’s disease by examining the retina of the eye. If the results of this study hold, optometrists and ophthalmologists may be sending patients to neurologists to be checked for Alzheimer’s. There again, most people, unless they have eye diseases, see their optometrist more often than an ophthalmologist, so the optometrist could become a frontline person to watch for AD.

Our mouths, teeth, eyes and other parts of our bodies give our medical people clues to many types of health issues. While I sympathize with you about the difficulties of getting frail elders to appointments – and believe me, I know since I spent two decades caring for a total of seven elders – your dentist wasn’t just passing the buck. He or she truly believed that your mother could have a medical issue because of something he saw during the exam. Referring you was the responsible thing to do.

I hope you thanked the dentist and followed through. That step could save many repeat doctor visits in the future.

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Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carol@mindingourelders.com.