Most people recognise the importance of seeing a doctor when they have symptoms of an illness or if they feel under the weather. But are you as committed to your oral health? Research shows that a large proportion of Americans do not see their dentist for a check-up every 6-12 months, as recommended. This is contributing to high rates of gum disease and decay, both of which are preventable conditions. With so many people going without regular dental care, is it right to assume that dental health is a forgotten area of health in the USA?
What are the barriers to dental care?
If you read the news you may have seen images and read articles about people queuing for hours-on-end, often overnight in difficult weather conditions, just to attend a free dental clinic. Dental charities such as the Mission of Mercy and Dentistry from the Heart have confirmed that free clinic days are getting busier, with hundreds of people often waiting in line before the clinics even open. This demonstrates the need for affordable dental treatment and the dire situation thousands of Americans find themselves in.
One of the main issues facing people is cost. For many, visiting a dentist is simply not affordable. In recent years, since the recession hit, a large number of people have lost their jobs and their employment benefits. This has meant that millions of Americans have been left uninsured. With dental fees increasing year on year the uninsured have great difficulty affording the treatment they need.
Another problem is accessing affordable care. Systems like Medicaid are in place to make dentistry more affordable, but the demand is too high and low reimbursement rates put dentists off accepting Medicaid patients. Free clinics definitely help, but the demand is far higher than the supply and the crowd they treat are really only the tip of the iceberg.
Why is oral health important?
One of the most distressing aspects of the current situation facing America is that oral health problems are largely preventable and that people who miss out on routine appointments because they cannot afford it are more likely to end up needing much more expensive treatment for complex illnesses.
Oral health is important for a number of reasons. A healthy, attractive smile gives you confidence and boosts your self-esteem and strong, healthy teeth and gums ensure that the mouth is able to carry out essential functions. Dental health is also important for general health. Numerous studies have now suggested a link between oral health and general health, with many research teams finding that poor mouth health can increase the risk of heart disease, strokes, diabetes and problems during pregnancy and childbirth.
Maintaining good dental health is important from an early age. Children who suffer from oral health problems are less likely to succeed at school and more likely to suffer from low self-esteem.
What help is available if you are struggling to see a dentist?
The majority of people who wait in line for hours on end outside a free dental clinic have not seen a dentist for several years and many of them suffer from severe dental pain. The problem is that there are not enough free and affordable dental clinics to cater for all the people who cannot afford regular dental fees. There are some avenues, however, which may be beneficial for people who are struggling; these include:
- Free clinics and non-profit organisations
- Sliding scale clinics (do some research and contact clinics in your area to see if any offer discounts)
- Cardholder schemes
- Dental schools (students provide treatment under supervision at a fraction of the cost)
It appears that the recession has had a profound impact on the way people view oral health and it is not a priority. Most people wouldn’t think twice about seeing a doctor, but going to the dentist seems to have become an unaffordable luxury for many and the situation is worrying. Some people also feel that oral health has not been a priority for governments in the past, despite the fact that studies show that there is a link between poor oral health and serious medical conditions. The Affordable Care Act contains provisions related to oral health, including the inclusion of children’s oral health care as part of an ‘essential benefits package’ and it remains to be seen if changes to the health system will bring about significant changes to access to affordable dental care.