Has the time come for a national movement in the United States to expand access to affordable and quality oral health services? A growing network is betting that the answer is yes. Let’s consider this nascent movement using the three ways that public health knowledge gets translated into public policy: the knowledge base, the social strategy, and political will.1
The Knowledge Base—What Do We Know?
The United States has problems with oral health. While most Americans’ oral health has improved markedly over 60 years, many millions are left behind and hurting. Societal improvements in science, technology, education, hygiene, community water fluoridation, and school-based services have not been broadly shared.2 Today, 130 million Americans, primarily adults, have no dental coverage. Many Americans with coverage find today’s health insurance cost-sharing requirements a prohibitive barrier to care. Medicare provides no dental coverage for 70% of its enrollees; 40% of them did not visit a dentist in 2014 and 60% have severe or moderate gum disease. Medicaid does cover dental services for low-income children but 17 million of them got no dental care in 2009. In most states, Medicaid covers no or little dental care for poor adults, while 47 million Americans live in areas where finding a dentist can be impossible.
Because of these access issues, 25% of adults over age 65 have lost all their teeth (edentulism). In 2009, US hospital emergency departments saw 850,000 visits for preventable dental pain. The avoidable disease called dental caries (or cavities) is 5 times more prevalent than asthma and affects 60% of children age 5 to 17. For those left behind, it’s a crisis. Oral health is an important part of US racial and ethnic health disparities.
Bad oral health results in pain, substandard nutrition, sleep loss, lost school time, work absence, worse jobs, and lowered self-esteem. Chronic oral infection is a proven risk factor for diabetes, osteoporosis, heart and lung disease, low birth weight, and if a dental abscess grows out of control, sepsis. Good oral health care improves overall health and decreases hospitalizations for conditions such as cerebral vascular disease and rheumatoid arthritis. The link between tobacco use and oral disease has been recognized since the US surgeon general’s 1964 report on smoking and health.3
Continue reading “Is “Dental Care for All” on the Horizon?”