Claudia Berki of Hamburg’s University Clinic: “Dentists should put more emphasis on good oral hygiene, even for themselves”

This certified dental assistant who has been using iTOP methods for more than twenty years says that dental professionals need to constantly practice proper oral hygiene themselves in order to effectively teach their patients.

Claudia Berki works as a certified dental assistant at the Center for Dental and Oral Medicine at the University Clinic in Hamburg. She has been working in prophylaxis for many years, helping patients in terms of prevention and managing periodontitis, but also teaching iTOP courses to the University’s students of dentistry and other dental professionals. In this interview, she shares her recollections of the beginnings of touch-to-teach philosophy and talks about her long and inspiring professional relationship with professor Jiří Sedelmayer.

Claudia, you’re a dental assistant who has participated in many courses and educational programs. Why did you choose to become more active in the field of education?

It just sort of happened. I’ve worked together with Jiří Sedelmayer for many years; everything I know and am able to do I’ve learned from him. He was a very patient teacher, and because prophylaxis was a big part of his teachings, I just slipped into it.

Sedelmayer always said that no one else had taken in as many of his lectures as I had. As he was both my personal dentist and also my work colleague, I was always able to go to his lectures.

You currently instruct sixth-semester university students in practical prophylaxis lessons, but you are also an iTOP teacher. Why did you join iTOP? What value do you see in this course?

We’ve been teaching iTOP methods to students for more than 20 years, even though we didn’t call it iTOP at that time.

Jiří Sedelmayer held the lecture, after which students were partnered up and trained in brushing teeth. There was an individual program for everyone.

They were trained over three successive appointments until they could take their short exam. It was quite a challenging process to coordinate.

I then came to Curaprox through Jiri as well, after receiving my lecturer certification from him in August 2009.

The core value of iTOP is better oral hygiene. I can only teach patients properly if I, as an employee or a dentist, also know how to do it properly and constantly practice it myself as well.

“We’ve been teaching iTOP methods to students for more than 20 years, even though we didn’t call it iTOP at that time.”

Do you have any idea how many iTOP seminars you have participated as a teacher? What kind of feedback do you typically get from iTOP participants?

No clue. As I said, I’ve been an iTOP person for over 20 years, so I can’t say how many I’ve done myself. But the feedback is always the same: enthusiasm, surprise, and from some, almost a desperate urgency to learn the new techniques and approaches as fast as possible. It is an incredible amount of fun bringing the iTOP philosophy to people.

Do you see any difference between today’s model of teaching dentistry as compared to the past?

I see my students as young people who are learning a great job and who are inquisitive and grateful.

I can’t compare today’s model with my studies because training as a dental assistant does not require a university education. It is offered through the Dental Association or other providers. But in this course, not much has changed, and I need to say that my training was almost 30 years ago!

I usually ask my new colleagues, whether in the clinic or at Curaden, who taught them how to brush their teeth during training and whether those teachers instructed them in touch-to-teach methods. And the answer is always a resounding NO.

I think it is sad that these are renowned teaching facilities with well-known professors as lecturers, but students do not even know the correct use of oral hygiene tools, proper pressure when brushing the teeth or dental flossing methods, let alone the proper size of an interdental brush. It’s all just theoretical and done on brushing models.

“Nobody in dentistry wants gum bleeding. Sadly I’ve observed that about 97% suffer from it. If you show patients how quickly and effortlessly this can actually be cured, there is no need for further discussion.”

Prevention is really a big part of your job. How do you motivate your students and other dentists to focus more on prevention?

Nobody in dentistry wants gum bleeding. Sadly I’ve observed that about 97% suffer from it. If you show patients how quickly and effortlessly this can actually be cured, there is no need for further discussion. You only have to do it. The motivation is clear: It won’t bleed anymore! The dentist is also much happier to work in a clean mouth.

At Curaden, we often say that dentists should be more teachers than repairers. Do you think this shift in approach is now underway?

No. As long as prevention has not reached dentists (and for that we need to reach the universities), and as long as only dental assistants are doing further training events, nothing will shift. In prophylaxis training courses, the dentists usually send their ‘girls’. They themselves go into more specialized training courses like ‘The Instant Implant’ or ‘High-Quality Prosthetics’.

Do you think people’s attitudes toward oral health have improved in recent days? 

I do think so, yes. Many people know that good oral hygiene (if you have a good teacher) can prevent many things. Being toothless is not a condition of age, but very often a result of neglected oral hygiene. Today, as many men as women come in to have their teeth cleaned, but it wasn’t always like that.

But some people only come for cleaning, and are not interested in learning about better oral hygiene techniques that they can do by themselves at home.

When we talk about proper oral care, what does that mean to you? What should dentists teach people – daily, weekly, monthly, etc. – to keep their teeth and gums healthy?

Only when I am passionate about something myself, can I ignite the same passion in others. That is my motto. Unfortunately, I myself experienced insufficient oral hygiene as a child and adolescent, but that was just how things were back then. Today I know how to do it right. My years of work alongside Jiří Sedelmayer have taught me how to do it right.

Dentists should simply put more emphasis on good oral hygiene, including for themselves. They should also be addressing this topic themselves and not just leaving it to us [dental assistants]. But of course, this assumes that both parties, dentist and prophylaxis staff, possess the same knowledge.

What do you think is the biggest challenge in your job at the moment?

To keep going. The people that I can explain the iTOP philosophy to, who understand it and can integrate it into their daily lives, are extremely grateful, but it all takes time.

Photography by Welin Nagyová