Sunday, July 22, 2012

Oral Health Epidemic Persists

Former Surgeon General David Satcher and Former HHS Secretary Dr. Louis Sullivan, President of the Sullivan Alliance were speakers at a recent conference held to address the oral health epidemic in this country. The Morehouse School of Medicine and the Sullivan Alliance sponsored the one day conference “Unmet Oral Health Needs, Underserved Populations, and New Workforce Models: an Urgent Dialogue”.

Former Surgeon General David Satcher reported, “Profound oral health problems exist for large portions of the population. Oral health care in America continues to be a crisis as tooth decay is the most common chronic disease among children and is almost five times more prevalent than asthma.”

Another fact is that children, minorities, and the poor are disproportionately affected by the oral health crisis:

  • Thirty seven percent of African American children and forty one percent of Hispanic children have untreated tooth decay, compared with twenty five percent of white children
  • American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest rate of tooth decay of any population: five times the national average for children ages 2 to 4
  • Seventy two percent of American Indian and Alaska Native children ages 6 to 8 have untreated cavities more than twice the rate of the general population
  • More than a third of all poor youngsters ages 2 to 9 have untreated cavities, compared with seventeen percent of children who are not poor

The Satcher issued a renewed call for action to expand access to oral health care since more than five million additional children are expected to gain dental benefits through the ACA in 2014. However, the fact is that there are not enough providers to meet the need. Currently, just 20 percent of all practicing dentists accept Medicaid patients. As a result, HRSA estimates a current shortage of approximately 10,000 dentists in the future.

Satcher advocates launching workforce pilot programs to determine how best to expand access to dental care. He said, “We need more dentists and we need more professionals who are not dentists but who can contribute to oral healthcare services. The real key is whether or not systems are going to ensure that everyone is allowed to practice to the level of their potential.”

According to Satcher, states must purse all avenues to expand access to dental care, including looking for ways to create new dental providers and how to build a cadre of ethnically-diverse, culturally competent dental practitioners as well as how to expand the reach of the dental team with other healthcare professionals.

More than a dozen states are exploring creating new midlevel dental providers, also known as dental therapists, to expand access to preventive and routine dental care. Dental therapists currently practice in Alaska and Minnesota. In Alaska, dental therapists have been able to provide care to 35,000 Alaska Natives who couldn’t access dental care before. Connecticut and Oregon are planning pilot projects and numerous other states have put forward legislation to allow dental therapists.