July 20, 2022

Oral Health Equity

At what point did we decide that teeth are not a part of the body?


Despite the fact that tooth infection can lead to serious illness, despite the fact that oral health is directly linked to diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, and despite the fact that millions of Americans are living with chronic mouth pain, dentistry is an often-overlooked component of health care.


Many employers do not offer dental insurance, and out-of-pocket prices are steep. Though Medicaid offers a limited dental plan, it can be challenging for individuals to find dental practices that accept state-sponsored insurance. In some states, dental care is excluded from Medicaid entirely. For many Americans, the emergency room is the only access point for dental care. In 2012, there were more than 2 million hospital dental visits that incurred $1.6 billion in expenses, with an average cost of $749 per visit. This system of oral health treatment, wherein preventative care is a privilege and emergency care is exorbitant, isn’t working for anyone.


Graph credit to HealthMatch


Unsurprisingly, those most affected are among the most vulnerable. A disproportionate prevalence of oral disease appears in poor and marginalized groups: Black, Hispanic, and Native American individuals have far less access to preventative dental services and far higher rates of oral disease across all age groups. Similarly, individuals living below 200% of the federal poverty level have more untreated dental cavities and fewer permanent teeth than those living above that threshold. Check out health journalist Mary Otto’s book, titled Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America (2017), to read more about the hidden connections between tooth decay and stunted job prospects, low educational achievement, and decreased social mobility. It is time to acknowledge the consequences of oral health that extend beyond the mouth, as well as the disparities that exist between those with access to quality dental care and those without.


Dental services at CommunityHealth


Since 2009, CommunityHealth has been proud to offer oral health services to our patients. Our patients can receive dental exams, cleanings, tooth extractions and fillings, oral cancer screening, and even some endodontic procedures such as root canals, all at no charge – onsite at CommunityHealth. CommunityHealth is uniquely positioned to offer both medical and dental services in the same location. Physicians and dentists are in communication when an oral health issue is identified and can work together to determine the best treatment. As we continue to integrate these services, it will lead to better oral health and overall health for our patients.


As always, we owe an enormous thank you to our volunteers, donors, and partners who make it possible to provide our patients with the best possible care. In addition to the onsite care offered at CommunityHealth’s Lederman Family Health Center, we are supported by the UIC College of Dentistry and Malcolm X Dental Hygiene Program, whose students get the chance to interact with a unique patient population. Our partners at the Northwestern Dental Center and Malcolm X College Dental Hygiene Clinic allow us to refer patients with dental needs outside our scope of on-site care at no or little cost. And last but not least, the Advocate Dental Van (pictured) visits our headquarters every other week, expanding our capacity for dental appointments.


Do you know a dentist or dental hygienist? Invite them to volunteer with us! You can also support dental services at CommunityHealth by donating today.