What We Need To Do To Improve Oral Health In The U.S.

By: Jori Hamilton

As the political debates about health insurance rage on, the issue of how to improve oral health in the U.S. is largely ignored.

Photo source: Adobe Stock Photos

Public officials are constantly fighting about healthcare. Far-left advocates want free healthcare for all Americans, while the far-right believes that the government should not be involved in, much less pay for, such services. While the political debate rages on, health issues in the United States worsen.

For example, the price of medicines such as insulin has increased exponentially. Unfortunately, a lack of health insurance leaves many Americans with staggeringly high medical costs, and the healthcare system is generally failing too many Americans.

As the political debates about these medical concerns rage on, one issue that is less talked about but is just as important. That issue is oral health.

Dental insurance is usually treated as supplemental insurance. It is not included in most standard healthcare plans. And, all too often, dental insurance plans only cover a fraction of the cost and types of necessary dental work.

However, oral healthcare is just as important to everyone’s overall health and well-being as medical care.

Poor dental health coverage impacts the health of many Americans. As we age, our dental health needs only increase. These issues demonstrate a need for the public’s health to be protected. This is where dental health policy advocates come in.

The Importance of oral health

It’s easy to forget about the importance of our teeth, especially since they require minimal upkeep on a daily basis. However, dental checkups are good for more than just checking cavities and making sure patients brush and floss enough.

There are a wide variety of dental health procedures. Some are used to relieve intense pain, others to ensure that patients can eat properly. Root canals remove infected tissues and dental implants replace missing teeth.

In addition to caring for teeth, dental health professionals examine the entire mouth in order to identify major health problems, such as oral cancers, that benefit from early detection.

Poor oral health plays a role in other medical conditions and vice versa

According to the Mayo Clinic, oral health can contribute to several major health conditions and diseases, such as the following:

  • Endocarditis: An infection of the heart that can be caused by harmful bacteria in the mouth.
  • Cardiovascular disease: Research has linked heart disease and clogged arteries to inflammation and infection from poor oral health.
  • Pregnancy/birth complications: Premature births and low birth weight have links to poor oral health.

Conversely, Mayo Clinic states that some health conditions can affect oral health, such as:

  • Diabetes
  • Osteoporosis
  • Alzheimer’s disease

It’s clear that poor oral health can significantly lower your quality of life and even life expectancy. This illustrates the need for everyone to have fair access to oral health professionals, including cleanings, checkups, and emergency services.

Prohibitive costs of dental procedures

People shouldn’t have to try to get their oral care procedures on the cheap. Unfortunately, that is all too often the case.

Access to dental insurance and high costs for some procedures create barriers for people to address their dental health needs. Without insurance, patients can pay $80-$130 or more for a simple cleaning and over $300 for a more comprehensive exam. For more intensive treatments, like oral surgeries, patients can be charged tens of thousands of dollars.

A report by Pew Research Center addresses the high costs of dental care that can prevent low-income patients from seeing a dentist, saying:

“Although the Affordable Care Act requires state Medicaid programs and private insurers to include dental care for children, the federal health law did little to expand dental coverage for adults. Erosion of private and public dental insurance, mounting costs of care, and a limited number of dentists who accept public coverage have fueled a drop in utilization by working-age adults (ages 19–64) across income levels and insurance status in recent years.”

We need more oral health advocates to lobby for better access to dental services. Better access, including better dental insurance coverage, would allow more people to get the dental care they need. There is no doubt that this would improve the overall health of Americans across the country.

Why we need policy advocates dedicated to oral health

Currently, there are many policy specialists that advocate for general medical care for Americans. Dental care, a specialized field, also requires people who are specifically educated about the subject who can stand up for oral health needs.

It’s important that dental health policy people thoroughly understand the needs, challenges, and opportunities to improve dental health access to everyone. This includes understanding the links between oral health and other diseases, as well as smaller issues, like easier access to patient dental records.

Lecturer, educator, and oral health professional Lynne Short explains why dental hygienists make the perfect public health professionals:

“Dental hygienists are focused on oral health, but the mouth is part of the body, and there are systemic and societal factors that play into good oral health.”

Additionally, she explains that a good education in public health

“connects dental hygienists to a wider variety of subjects including the social determinants that impact health, as well as data collection, management, and health policy to assist them in positively impacting health and wellness on a larger scale.”

They have the knowledge and skills necessary to effectively advocate for change.

Oral health professionals with direct experience in the field will have knowledge of the impact dental policy has on real people. They have real-world experiences regarding how low safety standards for dental anesthesia can affect patients, for example.

Ongoing efforts to expand oral healthcare

Looking forward, there are some big potential changes that may impact the delivery of the necessary oral health services to the public.

PEW Research Center recently released a report on four recent, ongoing efforts to expand oral health care in the U.S.:

  • “Medicaid expansion could give over 350,000 people access to dental coverage
  • Oral health legislation to provide preventative and restorative care is being considered in more states
  • Accreditation for dental therapy will expand in multiple states
  • Dental industry changes are set to accelerate, including medical-dental integration, value-based purchasing, and practice consolidation”

Of course, these efforts are only the beginning.

The bottom line

There are many changes in the arena of oral health that need to occur in order to best serve the American people. Educated and experienced dental health policy advocates can play an important role in improving dental practices in the U.S.

Originally published at thedoctorweighsin.com on April 5, 2019.

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