Advocacy group gives U.S. a C’ in dental care

Oral Health America, a nonprofit advocacy group that develops, implements, and facilitates nationally focused educational, informational, and service programs designed to improve oral health, gave the United States an overall grade of C in oral health for 2001, saying it "signifies new possibilities for the future as well as widespread unmet needs."

The components of the total score break down as follows: B+ for oral health leadership (dental directors and oral health coalition); C+ for oral health status (oral health of children, use of spit tobacco, elderly who have lost all their teeth, and oral cancer mortality rates); C for prevention (fluoridation and sealants), and C- for access to care (availability of dentists, children’s Medicaid dental program, visits to dentists, and dental insurance status of adults and elderly).

"As the states and the nation, as a whole, work to improve the health care system, it is important to remember that good oral health is a major contributor to good overall health," Oral Health America stated in its report. "Dental disease can threaten a child’s health, well-being, and achievement. Children with oral health problems can have difficulty eating and sleeping and paying attention in school. In addition, researchers are exploring links between adult oral disease and diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and pre-term, low birth weight babies." 

The report cited statistics that we often don’t hear: More than 108 million U.S. adults and children have no dental insurance; for every child without medical insurance, there are 2.6 without dental insurance; poor individuals are less likely to visit a dentist than the nonpoor in any given year; tooth decay is the most common chronic disease, affecting 50% of first-graders and 80% of 17-year-olds; every year more than 30,000 people develop oral and throat cancer; oral/throat cancer is the sixth most common cancer in U.S. males and the fourth most common cancer in black men; and almost 2.5 million days of work are lost each year due to dental problems.

A step forward

A positive step cited by the group is the fact that a number of states have hired dental directors, signifying "an important step toward supplying vital leadership at the state level." Oral Health America said that too many low-income people lack access to care and that too few communities have taken advantage of cost-effective prevention measures. Many children and older Americans have gone too long without adequate dental care. The group says it hopes that opinion leaders, public advocates, policy-makers, and the media will note the shortfalls and work to support existing infrastructure and programs to improve and promote oral health across the country.

Recommended strategies include broadening insurance coverage for children, adults on Medicaid, elderly, and special populations; supporting dental services and education for vulnerable populations; developing accessible oral health services; and using known disease-prevention measures.

(To learn more about the Oral Health America report card and programs to overcome deficiencies, go to: www.oralhealthamerica.org.)