Getting to Treatment: Letters to My Patients 

May 22, 2024 Laura Harkin

By Laura S. Harkin, DMD  

My dad and I were enjoying our favorite lunch spot years ago when he turned to me and said, “Laura, isn’t it amazing? There’s an incredible sense of trust that our patients have in us. Sometimes, we give our best recommendation for treatment, and it is declined as if it weren’t important or a priority. I’ve recognized that, more often than not, our patients eventually choose to move forward, proving that it was more a matter of timing and circumstance than lack of value.” 

Trust is the cornerstone of our practice. It was transferred from patients to Grandpa to Dad and to me. I do believe that every morsel is earned through guidance, thoughtfulness, and skill. Trust is an entity that requires constant nurturing. In private practice, one should recognize that a doctor’s trust in their patient is equally as important as a patient’s trust in their provider. With synergy there’s the opportunity for optimal health. Even as a child, I had a very clear understanding of the care my dad had for his patients. This feeling is innate and deeply imbedded in me. I imagine that he felt the same.  

I don’t consider myself “a writer,” but I’ve always enjoyed the art of letter writing. I grew up writing frequently to my grandparents and friends and always loved picking out stationary that reflected my personality. Recently, I reread the letters that my grandfather typed on his old typewriter and my oldest brother scribbled on his Grateful Dead CD inserts – crafted just for me. It seems fitting then that I enjoy writing personalized letters to my patients. In fact, I’m pretty sure I salvaged my mental health during COVID by writing “updates” to my patients during months of closure. I digress. 

The letters that I write to my patients are most often in reference to comprehensive treatment. They provide a bird’s eye glimpse of our most recent findings, diagnoses, and treatment recommendations. My older patients, especially, appreciate my thoroughness, organization, and systematic approach to recommended treatment. These letters certainly aren’t handwritten, but the hard copy renders a sense of care that’s transferred from my hands to theirs. We must remember that individuals comprehend and retain information differently. The one-on-one, verbal, treatment consultation can become lost in the shuffle of everyday. Add dental language and complicated procedures to the mix, and that’s simply a recipe for confusion.  

Whenever I present complex treatment to a patient, I write a letter in everyday language to support our conversation. It’s stored in their digital chart as part of their dental record. In my first paragraph, I state my patient’s chief complaint. A summary of clinical findings followed by bullet point. Next, I provide my best treatment recommendation, an appointment sequence, and the financial investment. Photographs are also a helpful insert to aid in explanation for family members who were unable to attend the consultation. I think there’s value in a tangible letter taken home to revisit.  

Treatment letters are also an irreplaceable resource for my team. When a patient calls to schedule treatment previously presented, my stored letter immediately becomes a reference for scheduling appointments, including time allotments and space in-between subsequent visits. In my office, we offer a courtesy for treatment paid in full. This amount is figured in the financial investment portion of my letter so that conversations regarding immediate payment or a payment plan can easily flow. Should a case not be accepted prior to a routine recare visit, this letter serves as an excellent reminder during team huddle. It’s inefficient to page through multiple chart notes and software-driven plans with no explanation of the diagnoses which caused a need for restoration in the first place.  

In my first few years of practice, it was hard for me to accept that I needed to view this document as fluid with a potential need for multiple modifications to suit my patient’s desires and limitations. For example, financial concerns often lead to the need for phased treatment or a compromise from the ideal. I’m committed to openly discussing what may occur if no treatment is rendered or if a compromised approach is chosen. Likewise, I believe in the importance of presenting the financial component of extensive treatment myself. As the dentist and business owner, I must “own” the fee that I’ve carefully determined to reflect indirect and direct time, the skill level and support to be provided by my team, the technical excellence of my laboratory technicians, and my own knowledge. The fee that I present is steadfast, barring an unanticipated need such as root canal therapy. Should there be a need for additional chair-time or visits, it’s included in the quoted fee.  

Finally, my letters include my expectations for post-treatment maintenance. For example, if we are to complete a hybrid case in conjunction with a surgeon, I’m careful to share the importance of periodontal health and frequent maintenance visits to prevent peri-implantitis. In patients who have pre-existing medical conditions that when uncontrolled can be contradictory, I stress the importance of regular monitoring. Ultimately, I strive to empower my patients to choose and achieve oral health, Undoubtedly, oral health positively impacts overall health. My personal letters are a distinguishing trait of my practice that convey the level of care to be carried from presentation through treatment and in maintenance. Consider the value in this extra step! 

 

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Dental Sleep Medicine in Restorative Practice Part 7: Team Investment

February 12, 2024 Todd Sander, DMD

Dental Sleep Medicine in Restorative Practice Part 7: Team Investment 

By Todd Sander DMD 

If a dentist wants to provide dental sleep medicine within a restorative practice, everyone needs to be on the same page when making room on the schedule for sleep patients. It would be best to have a couple of champions on your team to support you in your efforts. 

The first champion you need is a sleep patient coordinator who has excellent phone skills and a high interest in what you want to achieve. This team member needs a working knowledge of sleep medicine and to be able to talk with patients about dental sleep medicine over the phone. Ideally, this team member has excellent phone skills and cares about sleep-related breathing disorders and pulmonary issues.  

If another receptionist receives a sleep dental medicine inquiry, our protocol is to take a message and have our sleep patient coordinator call the prospective new patient right back. This has worked well in our practice with a high rate of conversion. 

The second champion you need is a motivated clinical assistant. Hygienists and expanded-function dental assistants make phenomenal sleep assistants because they are driven to learn and do new things. In Parts 3 and 4 of this series, I described tasks my clinical assistant typically performs, so I can best use my time with the patient. For many years, one of our hygienists who had a passion for dental sleep medicine worked with me in developing the sleep side of the practice and was my clinical assistant with sleep patients. In our practice, her role was half traditional hygiene and half sleep dental medicine. 

For years, I have taken our entire staff to sleep courses, even team members who are not helping a lot with dental sleep medicine. I want my team to understand why I am developing the dental sleep medicine practice inside my restorative practice, how they can support it best, and receive formal training to pitch in when needed.  

Don’t forget to invest in yourself because you are the key team member. Today, there are several good sleep dental medicine courses, including at The Pankey Institute. The Pankey Institute courses and its dental sleep medicine study club are excellent.  

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Todd Sander, DMD

Dr. Todd Sander is a graduate of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the School of Dentistry at Temple University, and a one-year Advanced Education in General Dentistry residency with the US Army at Fort Jackson, SC. He completed three years of active duty with the US Army Dental Corps and served in Iraq for 11 months. Dr. Sander completed more than 500 hours of postgraduate training at the Pankey Institute for Advance Dental Education and is one of only three dentists in the Charleston area to hold such a distinction. Dr. Sander is also affiliated with the American Dental Association, South Carolina Dental Association, American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, Academy of General Dentistry, and American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine. Areas of special interest include: TMJ disorders; advanced dental technology; cosmetic dentistry; full mouth reconstruction; sleep apnea /snoring therapy; Invisalign orthodontics.

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Dental Sleep Medicine in Restorative Practice Part 6: The Question of Software

February 9, 2024 Todd Sander, DMD

Dental Sleep Medicine in Restorative Practice Part 6: The Question of Software 

By Todd Sander DMD 

Numerous companies offer software solutions for dental sleep medicine that integrate with billing services. These companies can take over the paperwork and billing for medical insurance. Some of them have letter templates built into them.  

I look at software all the time, and when I do, I evaluate the efficiency we would gain versus the number of appliances I would need to deliver to make using the software worthwhile. Their billing service fees are high. Currently, I average 10-15 dental sleep medicine patients per quarter and not all of these are candidates for oral appliance therapy. Remember, I have a busy restorative practice. Colleagues who practice full-time dental sleep medicine may see this number in a week! 

I’ve been fortunate to have team members who don’t mind researching how to file medical insurance claims for appliances. Most of my colleagues use a software platform designed for dental sleep medicine. So far, I have chosen not to use one. Instead, I have assigned the duties to team members and they have taken dental sleep medicine, Eaglesoft, and medical billing courses. Currently, we have customized template forms and letters in our Eaglesoft system but it is not set up for filing medical claims.  I must admit, it is getting harder to do this. and I may be forced to decide about dedicated software soon. However, the decision will be made considering financial feasibility as a primary concern. 

It did take time to develop our template forms and letters in Eaglesoft but now we are highly efficient. I dictate the notes for our records, the SOAP note for medical insurance, and the information we want to share in letters with physicians. In addition to the cost savings, I like that I am recording the data I want in my documentation in a structure I want for how I practice—not just for the SOAP note and representing my findings to referring physicians. 

One of my mentors has me considering the possibility that I might want to separate my dental sleep medicine patients’ charting from my dental patients’ charting. Using software designed for the practice of dental sleep medicine would give me a clean way to segregate the patients on my computers. So far, I’ve decided that the expense of the software will not give me a return on my investment. 

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Todd Sander, DMD

Dr. Todd Sander is a graduate of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the School of Dentistry at Temple University, and a one-year Advanced Education in General Dentistry residency with the US Army at Fort Jackson, SC. He completed three years of active duty with the US Army Dental Corps and served in Iraq for 11 months. Dr. Sander completed more than 500 hours of postgraduate training at the Pankey Institute for Advance Dental Education and is one of only three dentists in the Charleston area to hold such a distinction. Dr. Sander is also affiliated with the American Dental Association, South Carolina Dental Association, American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, Academy of General Dentistry, and American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine. Areas of special interest include: TMJ disorders; advanced dental technology; cosmetic dentistry; full mouth reconstruction; sleep apnea /snoring therapy; Invisalign orthodontics.

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Dental Sleep Medicine in Restorative Practice Part 5: Selecting Appliances

January 31, 2024 Todd Sander, DMD

Dental Sleep Medicine in Restorative Practice Part 5: Selecting Appliances 

By Todd Sander DMD 

This article is written for dentists who are thinking about or just starting a dental sleep medicine practice. I do both restorative dentistry and dental sleep medicine, and by sharing what I do, I hope to help others with their planning. 

There are many other types of appliances you can consider and I am always looking at them. But to become most efficient, I have narrowed down the types of appliances I deliver. Most commonly, these are Dorsal and Herbst appliances. Both are titratable, as the patient needs more advancement over time. 

The dorsal appliance resembles a custom-fitted mouthguard, worn only during sleep. It uses advancement blocks with an orthodontic screw to advance the jaw. There are many manufacturers, and it is easy to deliver. It doesn’t impinge on the tongue, so patients find it comfortable. It is fairly durable and repairable, especially if milled out of acrylic. This is my go-to type of appliance for most patients because patients respond favorably to them. 

A Herbst appliance is more durable for parafunctional patients and fairly comfortable. Patients are sometimes intimidated when they first look at this type of appliance but I always point out that the advancement bars are in the dead space of the cheeks, and they won’t feel them. There are many types of Herbst appliances with different types of advancement arms. 

I sometimes deliver an EMA appliance or a TAP 3 appliance. I have found that the screw and bar assembly of TAP appliances can impinge the tongue a little. My preference is to use appliances that provide more room for the tongue to move forward. Milling and 3D printing have introduced many low-profile, stable, and comfortable appliances that deserve investigation.  

Whatever appliance you decide to use, become knowledgeable and proficient with it. You want to convey confidence to your patients. The more they trust in the appliance, the more compliant they will be with wearing it and the sooner they can achieve improvement of their sleep breathing issues. Oftentimes, they will feel better within a week or two and report this during their first recall visit. When they report improved symptoms, we can move on to confirming the treatment position with a home sleep monitor and refer them back to their physician. Treatment position can also be confirmed prior to appliance fabrication by using a MyTAP temporary appliance.  This can improve the initial treatment position and is necessary for non-titratable appliances. 

With most patients, we take two steps forward and one step back as we titrate an appliance to an effective treatment position. Sometimes I need to send an appliance back, so I’ve become used to taking a bite registration myself and sending it to the lab to reset the appliance in a more forward position.  Using a MyTAP to determine treatment position ahead of time helps prevent this. We prepare our patients for this possibility and provide encouragement to stay on course. Working as a team with our patients, we will get there! 

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TMD patients present with a wide range of concerns and symptoms from tension headaches and muscle challenges to significant joint inflammation and breakdown. Accurate thorough diagnosis is the first step…

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Todd Sander, DMD

Dr. Todd Sander is a graduate of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the School of Dentistry at Temple University, and a one-year Advanced Education in General Dentistry residency with the US Army at Fort Jackson, SC. He completed three years of active duty with the US Army Dental Corps and served in Iraq for 11 months. Dr. Sander completed more than 500 hours of postgraduate training at the Pankey Institute for Advance Dental Education and is one of only three dentists in the Charleston area to hold such a distinction. Dr. Sander is also affiliated with the American Dental Association, South Carolina Dental Association, American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, Academy of General Dentistry, and American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine. Areas of special interest include: TMJ disorders; advanced dental technology; cosmetic dentistry; full mouth reconstruction; sleep apnea /snoring therapy; Invisalign orthodontics.

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Dental Sleep Medicine in Restorative Practice Part 4: Treatment Monitoring

January 26, 2024 Todd Sander, DMD

Dental Sleep Medicine in Restorative Practice Part 4: Treatment Monitoring 

By Todd Sander DMD 

One week after a dental sleep medicine patient is given their appliance I have them return for a follow-up appointment with my clinical assistant. During this appointment, we want to determine if the patient is having any issues. It takes a little time for patients to become accustomed to wearing their appliance and most patients have questions, so this appointment is a time to reassure them and reinforce instructions for advancement if the patient has a titratable appliance. After one week, many start to experience the benefits of 50 to 60% advancement. 

We bring them back again at four to six weeks, at which time, we review their medical history and see if there have been changes. We also evaluate their compliance. We have a sleep log for patients to fill out every morning after they wake. We ask them to make notes about the quality of their sleep. We also have a report form for the patient’s bed partner if the patient has one to make note of the patient’s sleep quality. Believe it or not, spouses/bed partners are accurate 80% of the time when compared with sleep monitors. My clinical assistant reviews the sleep logs and medical history, performs a preliminary appliance check, and lets me know the highlights. Then I come in and perform a thorough examination and lead a discussion to determine how well the patient is adapting to the appliance. 

If the patient is doing well with compliance and feels the therapeutic value of the appliance is adequate, I might decide to skip the eight to ten-week appointment and go straight to confirmation of resolution of symptoms with some sort of monitor. If the patient is not doing well or cannot advance comfortably, then we work out a plan. It is important to note that there are many effective appliances that are non-titratable and fabricated in a fixed position. With these appliances, I work out the titration to the treatment position in My TAP following a similar protocol before prescribing a treatment position in a final appliance. 

Note that we often see issues that cross over into the area of facial pain and temporomandibular joint problems. Many patients doing sleep appliance therapy have these problems, so if you want to do sleep dental medicine, be prepared to also manage your patients through facial pain and TMD issues as you titrate their appliances. 

Usually, in eight to ten weeks, we have successfully taught our patients to self-titrate the appliance to a comfortable treatment position, and we can move to monitor its effectiveness. We are always available to answer questions.  

People wearing Fitbits and iWatches can use snore lab apps. By self-monitoring, they have a good sense of when their appliance is in a good treatment position. In our practice, we always confirm this with either a high-resolution pulse oximetry monitor or a peripheral arterial tone monitor. These two types of monitors provide data we give the referring physician. I always send a letter and report back to the patient’s sleep physician and general dentist (if the patient is not also a general dentistry patient), and I ask the patient’s permission to include their primary doctor in the loop.  

After this, I see my sleep dental medicine patients for a six-month visit, then once a year for an annual visit. Often there are issues to be addressed. Sometimes the appliances need to be titrated a little bit more. Sometimes patients have been seating them improperly. Sometimes we see bite changes to address and document. 

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TMD patients present with a wide range of concerns and symptoms from tension headaches and muscle challenges to significant joint inflammation and breakdown. Accurate thorough diagnosis is the first step…

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About Author

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Todd Sander, DMD

Dr. Todd Sander is a graduate of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the School of Dentistry at Temple University, and a one-year Advanced Education in General Dentistry residency with the US Army at Fort Jackson, SC. He completed three years of active duty with the US Army Dental Corps and served in Iraq for 11 months. Dr. Sander completed more than 500 hours of postgraduate training at the Pankey Institute for Advance Dental Education and is one of only three dentists in the Charleston area to hold such a distinction. Dr. Sander is also affiliated with the American Dental Association, South Carolina Dental Association, American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, Academy of General Dentistry, and American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine. Areas of special interest include: TMJ disorders; advanced dental technology; cosmetic dentistry; full mouth reconstruction; sleep apnea /snoring therapy; Invisalign orthodontics.

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Dental Sleep Medicine in Restorative Practice Part 3: Exam and Appliance Delivery Protocols

January 22, 2024 Todd Sander, DMD

My regular examination and treatment protocols for dental sleep medicine patients are based on what I learned from mentors, but I’ve molded them for my style of practice.  

Screening—Years ago, I offered 15-minute consultations for anyone who wanted to learn about dental sleep medicine and alternatives to CPAP. I found that patients were already well-versed, so I don’t do that anymore. When my team members answer the phone, they often answer insurance-related questions, and my team members have learned to answer those questions astutely. While on the phone, they weed out those just curious about how a dentist might help them and focus on those likely to be committed to my process and accept treatment. I have team members who are knowledgeable about oral appliances and quickly answer questions about them over the phone. 

Pre-Examination Records—Referred patients scheduled for a comprehensive dental sleep medicine exam are sent paperwork to complete before their examination. My clinical assistants gather the paperwork, including a detailed medical history, the referral from a sleep physician, the letter of medical necessity, and their polysomnogram, if they have had it, and the hypnogram. We gather as much data from the physician as possible. I review this in advance of seeing the patient. 

Pre-Examination Records Created by My Clinical Assistant—When patients arrive for their initial two-hour appointment, my clinical assistant takes digital impressions (sometimes we take traditional PVS impressions) and x-rays. She also collects vitals and interviews the patient just as a medical assistant would in a medical office. 

Examination—During a thorough examination, I voice-record the information needed for the medical documentation. By the end of the exam, I know what the patient’s treatment options are going to be and the anticipated charge for treatment. Sometimes the patient is not a candidate for a sleep appliance and I refer the patient to their physician. We still get paid for the comprehensive exam. Our patients are prepared for this. Even if we can’t help them, they appreciate the time we spend. When each patient leaves the comprehensive exam, we have all the information we need, including a protrusive bite registration if the patient is to receive an appliance. 

Medical Reimbursement—In my practice, payment is due upfront for the examination. If they know this is coming in, they’re accepting of this. We have chosen to do our best to help patients seek medical reimbursement and submit the required medical documentation for their insurance. We operate on a fee-for-service model, and this requires intentional conversations with patients so they will value our care, skill, and judgment whether insurance reimburses them or not. 

Second Appointment to Start Appliance Therapy—My clinical assistant helps by initially trying in the appliance we have had lab-fabricated. She educates the patient about warming the appliance in warm water if it is a thermoplastic material and fabricates a morning repositioner. Then I come in and do a fit check, spend more time adjusting the appliance if needed, answer questions, confirm that the appliance has been fabricated correctly, and review instructions for wearing the appliance and using the morning repositioner. For titratable appliances, I usually start an appliance at 50 to 60% protrusive if it’s a mandibular advancement appliance. I ask the patient not to advance the appliance for one week. If the appliance is titratable, we educate the patient on how to advance 1-2mm every two to three days until symptoms alleviate.  

Part 4 of this series will discuss how I monitor my sleep dental medicine patients. 

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DATE: January 29 2025 @ 8:00 am - February 2 2025 @ 1:00 pm

Location: The Pankey Institute

CE HOURS: 37

Dentist Tuition: $ 7200

Single Occupancy with Ensuite Private Bath (per night): $ 345

TMD patients present with a wide range of concerns and symptoms from tension headaches and muscle challenges to significant joint inflammation and breakdown. Accurate thorough diagnosis is the first step…

Learn More>

About Author

User Image
Todd Sander, DMD

Dr. Todd Sander is a graduate of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the School of Dentistry at Temple University, and a one-year Advanced Education in General Dentistry residency with the US Army at Fort Jackson, SC. He completed three years of active duty with the US Army Dental Corps and served in Iraq for 11 months. Dr. Sander completed more than 500 hours of postgraduate training at the Pankey Institute for Advance Dental Education and is one of only three dentists in the Charleston area to hold such a distinction. Dr. Sander is also affiliated with the American Dental Association, South Carolina Dental Association, American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, Academy of General Dentistry, and American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine. Areas of special interest include: TMJ disorders; advanced dental technology; cosmetic dentistry; full mouth reconstruction; sleep apnea /snoring therapy; Invisalign orthodontics.

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