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More Than a Tooth Ache: The Need for Comprehensive Dental Care

No one likes going to the dentist. But what if a visit to the dentist wasn’t even an option? Dental care is a luxury for many Americans. Nearly one-third of Americans are without dental insurance, and millions go without necessary dental care because they do not have access to it or simply cannot afford it.

In the United States, affordable dental health services are lacking. For vulnerable populations, including many who are poor, homeless, or who live in isolated areas, access to regular dental care is limited. Most dentists throughout the country do not accept patients on Medicaid because reimbursements are too low, and as a result, many individuals are forced to pay for care completely out of pocket. With more pressing basic needs, dental care becomes an afterthought. In fact, a Kaiser Family Foundation study found that only about one-fifth of adults and children without insurance or Medicaid/CHIP visited the dentist in 2013.

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How Dental Care Becomes Emergency Care

Without options, preventative dental care becomes emergency care. Many Americans resort to emergency rooms or health clinics for dental emergencies that often could have been avoided. The American Dental Association estimates 85% of ER dental visits are by people who are uninsured or on government insurance plans, and it’s a trend on the rise. Over the course of the past decade, dental visits to emergency centers and health clinics have seen increases of 20% and 74%, respectively. Although ERs and clinics can treat the pain and symptoms of bad teeth, they are not equipped to solve the root problem.

The lack of preventative dental care is an issue as oral health is closely tied to overall health. Poor oral health can worsen chronic conditions, and lead to other health problems, such as heart disease and premature birth.

The Benefits of Integrating Dental and General Healthcare

As health plans and providers make population health a priority, more organizations are integrating dental care into their general care offerings, helping patients receive appropriate care in the right venue. The Marshfield Clinic in Wisconsin, through their Family Health Center of Marshfield, a federally qualified health center (FQHC) serving low-income and Medicaid patients, has opened 10 state-of-the-art dental centers to serve more than 60,000 patients a year who previously had no access to dental care. In addition to improving access, Marshfield Clinic centers have focused on dental health by combining patient’s medical and dental records, and making sure every patient that is seen for a dental appointment also has his or her blood pressure and blood sugar checked in case additional preventative care is required.

Truman Medical Centers in Missouri is another organization focusing on improving dental health of the patients they serve. They have established a referral program with University of Missouri dental clinic to help provide more pointed care. The relationship allows hospital staff to book appointments online for Medicaid patients to be seen at the clinics within a day or two at low costs to the patient.

The American Dental Association has also taken action with a community-based movement at ending the dental health crisis. Their initiative, Action for Dental Health, attempts to coordinate dental care for those who seek an immediate need and address social determinants that factor into lack of dental care among vulnerable populations. The program aims to foster relationships between private practices and the FQHC’s, but goes even further to work on education and prevention through community dental health coordinators.

Health providers can follow the examples of both these innovative health systems and the ADA to take a holistic approach to dental care. The inability to seek dental care is often just a symptom of other challenges that vulnerable populations may be up against. By connecting patients with community dental health care and education, we can help manage oral health and ultimately help manage the overall health of our communities.

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This post was sourced and co-authored by Flannery Nangle

Topics: health disparities public health