Billion Healthy Mouths Club

Oral hygienist and iTOP teacher Elna Van Der Ham: “With excellent care you can revolutionise the way patients feel about their oral cavity.”

Throughout her 42-year career, the South-Africa based oral hygienist has been bringing new oral health ideas to her clients, and never stopped educating herself.

Continuous education is key to the success of her work and also the health of her patients. Elna Van Der Ham – oral hygienist, representative of the Oral Hygienist Association of South Africa (OHASA), and iTOP lecturer – explains how it is possible to constantly move forward in the profession and gives us her tips on how to keep patients motivated in taking care of their oral health.

How did your professional story start? Why did you choose the career of oral hygienist?

My professional story started almost by divine intervention. I was going to follow a career in languages and psychology – I was even enrolled at the University of Cape Town – and then a friend working in dentistry told me about this very new field called Dental Hygiene at the University of Stellenbosch… and 42 years later I am still in this wonderful profession.

Beside your daily job, you have also been an iTOP teacher and OHASA and IFDH representatives… What’s your motivation for these activities, and the education of other dental professionals? 

I decided to get involved in my local Oral Hygienist Association of South Africa (OHASA) in order to network with like-minded colleagues, but also to serve on the committee so as to give back into the profession. I was elected as president of the association for 6 years and during that time I was also elected as our national representative for the International Federation of Dentist Hygienists (IFDH).

That led to my involvement in our national OHASA bid to host an International Symposium on Dental Hygiene in Cape Town. We won the bid and hosted the symposium in 2013. It was a life-changing experience of growth as an individual, but also humbling to network with key opinion leaders from around the globe. 

On the last day of the conference I was approached to become an iTOP teacher for South Africa. I had no idea what that meant at the time, but soon had the privilege to go for training in Prague with Jiří and Lucie Sedelmeyer. The iTOP teacher training opened another world for me in my profession.

“The iTOP teacher training opened another world for me in my profession. A world of meeting very passionate dental professionals who love education, training and prevention.”

A world of meeting very passionate dental professionals who love education, training and prevention. It has revolutionised the way I, and many others, view and practice preventative dentistry and oral hygiene. I now teach iTOP around the country and we have reached both the young and older minds in the profession, changing their thinking and strategies to that of prevention first.

You’re currently working as the oral hygienist at the implant clinic. What’s the biggest challenge of your job, from your point of view?

To be honest I don’t have big challenges, as my job is in a very good private practice with an excellent client base. My daily challenge is always to provide new, innovative and science-based oral health treatments, and to never stop the education process both for myself and my patients.

I love working with people. We learn a lot from one another and have built life-long friendships filled with care and respect for each other. I love the fact that with excellent care you can revolutionise the way patients feel about their oral cavity. 

Welcome to the Billion Healthy Mouths Club

Proper routines in prevention are the future of dentistry – that’s why we at Curaden launched the Billion Healthy Mouths Club – a community of dental professionals committed to the idea of having proper routines in prevention and a holistic approach to dentistry. Oral hygienist Elna Van Der Ham is one of those dental professionals who shares these values, and we proudly share her experience and thoughts with other like-minded people from the field. Keep reading our Gently magazine to discover more interviews with forward-thinking professionals from around the world.

You are also involved in some charity work connected to oral health. Could you tell us a bit more about that?

I am part of the Dental Wellness Trust, which is an NGO that works as a toothbrushing outreach in the Western Cape of South Africa. It was founded by Dr. Linda Greenwall, a South African dentist based in London. Statistics show that in the Western Cape around 85% of pre-school children have dental caries, and Dr. Greenwall wanted to make a difference in the less-privileged communities of our city. 

What’s your role in the Dental Wellness Trust?

I’ve been active in the trust for a couple of years as a volunteer. My duties involve training the community ‘mammas’, who are without work, to do brushing instruction with the children at schools. I decided to get involved as it is important to do something for the community and to endeavour to eradicate caries amongst our children. 

The programme consists of doing annual training with the DWT teachers in ‘touch 2 teach’ techniques. I lecture newcomers and refresh the knowledge of more experienced teachers. The teachers go to schools daily to instruct on hand washing and toothbrushing, but they also discuss diet and safety with the kids. We call it the Live Smart clubs. We currently have around 14,000 children brushing at school daily. They were given toothbrushes that they leave at school in a self-made storage board. It has been highly successful and we have changed the lives of many children. 

Has the pandemic situation changed the activities of the NGO?

During the pandemic no toothbrushing could happen on such a personal level, and the schools were closed, so the mammas started cooking soup for the communities in order to feed the children, as a lot of the parents lost their jobs. The board of Trustees of the DWT has done an incredible job securing sponsorship and donations to keep the children healthy until they can go back to school. 

Your job is mainly about prevention. What does the word prevention mean to you?

Prevention is the key to the success stories in dentistry, oral health and systemic health. Without prevention your reputation as an oral health practitioner is at stake. You cannot have long term success without prevention and education.

What is the level of oral health in your country? What needs major improvement?

The level of oral health in our country is very divided. On the one hand we have excellent private practices with a very high standard of care, and then there is a great need in public health for the training of more oral hygienists. As I mentioned the most of pre-school children have dental caries. Although a lot of hard work is done by the public health sector, we are still in need for more education and prevention on a national level.

“My daily challenge is always to bring new, innovative and scientific oral health ideas to my clients, and to never stop the education process both for myself and my patients.”

How do you, as a dental hygienist, motivate patients to take responsibility for their oral health?

I believe that scientific information is the key to understanding health processes and I try to share such knowledge with my patients. Patients that you have a longstanding professional relationship with have learned to trust your judgement and the information you put forward to them. Patients are usually very motivated to take responsibility when they experience the sensation of a very clean healthy mouth. That has a wow factor!

Do you have any golden rules that you follow?

The golden rule for me is providing effective oral hygiene without any damage to the soft or hard tissues in the mouth, and this requires a tailor-made programme for every individual. An excellent preventative programme is like bread…. it should be made fresh every day. 

What’s the most important thing in terms of an oral care routine from your point of view?

A focused, mindful daily routine is the key to success. Correct techniques and tools are also critical in the execution of your daily oral care routine. 

As you mentioned, education is very important, but there are many people who educate themselves and believe in various dangerous myths in terms of oral care. What’s the biggest oral health myth that you come across with your patients, that they need to be corrected on?

The biggest myth that I fight against with patients is that they think tooth brushing is synonymous with tooth cleaning. “But I brush twice a day” is the standard comment, and yet their mouths are in a bad state of health. Education then makes them experience the rule of “correct techniques with the correct tools give you excellence”. They are then a patient for life!

The myth among dental professionals is that they don’t have to spend ‘touch 2 teach’ quality time with their patients. But you cannot learn techniques from a text book! That statement includes ourselves as oral health workers as well. We have to be the example.

Elna Van Der Ham graduated in 1977 from the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, in Dip. Oral Hygiene. In 2005 she obtained the Extended Function in Oral Hygiene Certificate at the University of Western Cape. She has taken part in several professional trainings and courses, including iTOP (Individually Trained Oral Prophylaxis). She has worked in general private practice for four years and private specialist periodontal practice for 33 years. Elna has been active in the Oral Hygienists’ Association of South Africa (OHASA) and IFDH (International Federation of Dental Hygienists). Currently she holds the position of OHASA National Executive Committee. She is also an active member of the NGO Dental Wellness Trust.