Oral health is essential to overall health and wellbeing. However, access to quality oral health care is a challenge for many communities. It leads to inequalities in oral health outcomes.
36% of Americans - more than a third of the population - do not go to the dentist each year. That number jumps to 50% for lower incomes households. This reality has led to initiatives like the ADA’s Action for Dental Health program.
- Lack of access to dental care: it results in different oral health outcomes based on patient demographics.
- Poor oral health: this can lead to pain, infection, tooth loss, and other serious health problems.
- The ways dental professionals can help: start a Head Start program, accept Medicaid patients, and take part in an ER referral/intercept program.
Progress has been made to combat the dental health crisis in America. But there are still standout issues that create barriers between patients and the care they need – particularly patients in underserved populations.
Dentists can bridge the gap between their office and low income, senior, and disabled patients. This can be the deciding factor in communities getting adequate access to oral healthcare.
This article explores the importance of dental professionals empowering people to take control of their oral health. You can be effective in the lives of those who need oral care the most. Here are three ways dentists can provide dental care for underserved populations.
What are oral health care inequalities?
It refers to the disparities in access to and utilization of oral health care services. This results in differences in oral health outcomes for a variety of factors. They include socio-economic status, race, ethnicity, geography, and cultural barriers. For example, low-income individuals may have difficulty affording dental care. Meanwhile rural communities may lack access to dentists and other oral health care providers.
The impact of oral health care inequalities
Oral health care inequalities can be significant, both for individuals and communities. Poor oral health can lead to pain, infection, tooth loss, and other serious health problems. It can also have a negative impact on an individual's quality of life. This includes their ability to eat, speak, and socialize. Oral health problems can also result in missed school or workdays, which reduces productivity and economic losses.
Communities with high rates of oral health problems also face a significant economic and social toll. The costs of untreated oral health problems can be high. These costs include emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and lost productivity.
- Start a Head Start Program
Oral health is a key part of early childhood success. Dental professionals can collaborate with community organizations, such as community health centers, schools, and non-profits. Together you can identify and address the oral health care needs of underserved populations.
One such example is the Head Start program - devised by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965. It aims to improve health, nutrition, and early education for low-income children and families.
Education and outreach are critical components of empowering communities to take control of their oral health. Dentists can provide education on proper oral hygiene, the importance of regular dental check-ups, and other strategies to promote good oral health. They can also conduct outreach activities. These can include free dental screenings and oral health fairs to increase awareness of oral health care issues.
There are other examples of successful community empowerment initiatives led by dental professionals. For example, the Give Kids A Smile program provides free dental care to children in underserved communities. Another initiative, the Fluoride Varnish Project, provides preventive dental care to children in rural areas.
You can reach out to your local Head Start program to arrange for school visits or educational outreach. If there isn’t a local Head Start office in your area, consider reaching out to local schools about classroom visits or oral health screenings.
- Accept Medicaid/Seek out Medicaid Patients
Working with Medicaid patients is a challenge for a lot of dental offices. Some dentists think it is an ethical requirement to treat Medicaid patients, and others don’t accept Medicaid at all. But an increasing number of dentists are turning to Medicaid – with good reason.
More than 93 million individuals were enrolled in Medicaid and CHIP in the 51 states and the District of Columbia as of February 2023. That is a giant increase in patients struggling to afford their dental care. It makes accepting Medicaid one of the best ways to provide access to dental care for underserved populations. And it can help you retain more patients.
Dental professionals can advocate for policy changes that increase access to oral health care for underserved populations. For example, they can support legislation that provides funding for community-based oral health programs in rural areas. They can also advocate for policies that promote preventative care and education.
- Consider an ER Referral/Intercept Program
Many people without easy access to dental care turn to the ER when they have a dental emergency. There are about two million emergency department visits annually in the U.S. for nontraumatic dental problems. This represents 1.5 percent of all emergency visits. These ER visits often end with pain medicine, antibiotics, and a recommendation to see a dentist.
It’s important for dentists to work with local hospitals to provide direct referrals. They can also distribute educational materials for dental-related ER visits. Patients will have a higher chance of getting the care they need from a dentist.
Try reaching out to your local ER or urgent care facility to discuss a dental intercept program. It is a fantastic way to network with physicians too.
Oral health care inequalities are a significant public health issue, affecting individuals and communities across the country. Through partnerships dental professionals can work towards a future where everyone has access to quality oral health care.