By Andrew Lofton
Surveys of Washington residents show that oral health problems occur in all communities and populations, but are more common among communities of color and people with lower incomes. When it comes to oral health, disparities are widespread and profound.
Surveys conducted by the Washington State Department of Health show there are significant oral health disparities. Eighteen percent of African American children, 19 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native children and 26 percent of Pacific Islander children have untreated tooth decay, compared to 10 percent of Caucasian children.
We can do better. It is unacceptable that anyone should have to suffer with oral disease because it is painful, harmful and almost completely preventable. Prevention and early treatment are important because when dental problems fester, they become more damaging, costly and dangerous.
Anyone who has had a severe cavity or abscessed tooth is very aware of how painful it can be. Oral pain can make it difficult for children to pay attention in school, eat nutritious foods, sleep and even learn how to communicate and socialize with their peers. Poor oral health can hold adults back from getting a good job and performing well at work. In addition, oral disease is linked to diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and complications in pregnancy.
The hurdles people face to having better oral health include not being able to find a dentist who will accept their insurance. Many people quality for Apple Health (Medicaid), which covers many dental procedures. But in the last year, only about 40 percent of the 2.1 million people in this state enrolled in Apple Health, and only 23 percent of adults, actually saw a dentist.
There is online tools available at https://www.themightymouth.org to help connect you with a dentist in your community who accepts your insurance, including Apple Health.
Consuming healthy foods and drinks and taking proper care of your mouth and gums are also very important to your oral and overall health. We should all drink lots of water (especially fluoridated water), avoid drinks and food and high in sugar and starch, brush our teeth twice a day with fluoride toothpaste, and floss daily.
Policymakers including state legislators and local elected officials also have a role in promoting oral health. We should all insist that they protect and improve adult Medicaid dental coverage, increase programs that offer sliding scale fee options for people who are uninsured, and work to enhance programs, hygiene services, referral resources and education materials that can reach people across the broad spectrum of ages and cultures in our community.
Proven programs including Access to Baby and Child Dentistry (ABCD) should be expanded. Celebrating its 20thyear, ABCD connects lower-income children under age six to dentists, specially trained to care for young children. The program has been very successful and has been replicated in other state. Still, more than 44 percent young children are not getting the dental care they need to stay healthy and happy. This really matters because if a child is cavity-free early in life, they are more to enjoy better oral health throughout life.
Children in our community should not be suffering unjustly from painful and preventable cavities. The fact that oral health disparities are so prevalent means change is needed. We need to support programs and approaches that ensure all people have the opportunity for good oral and overall health. It is time to stop separating the mouth from the body. It’s time ensure that all people enjoy the health benefits and confidence associated with a healthy mouth.
Working together we can help make oral health, and the health of our community, a higher priority.
Andrew Lofton is Executive Director of the Seattle Housing Authority. He is also a board member of Arcora Foundation, the foundation of non-profit Delta Dental of Washington.