According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost one-third of American young adults suffer from untreated dental health problems like cavities. And over a third of these same adults didn’t visit a dentist during the past year. There are many reasons why many Americans forego dental care. Either they don’t have dental insurance, or if they do, their dental care benefits are easily exhausted. If they live in rural America, the closest dentist may be too far of a drive.
So many citizens skimp on or skirt dental care – or those who have the time or live in close proximity can drive to border cities like Los Algodones, Mexico (often called “Molar City”) to score dental care at a fraction of the cost of what they’d pay in the U.S. The bottom line is that many citizens in the wealthiest country on earth aren’t getting the oral care they need.
One company that is trying to both transform and expand access to dental care is DentaQuest. Through several programs, including “Preventistry,” a four-pronged approach seeking to disrupt how dental care is delivered, priced and accessed, Boston-based DentaQuest is striving to remove dental care from its silo and integrate it into the U.S. health care system.
“I like to tell people that DentaQuest is a disruptive oral health company that is working to reinvent the system from the inside-out,” said Alison Corcoran, the company’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer. “At the top, we’re a nonprofit focused on driving systems change through policy and program development, philanthropy and innovation.”
The reason why our dental care and health care are separately paid for, accessed and managed is largely an accident of history. In a nutshell, barbers used to be the practitioners who delivered oral care services and surgeries, largely in part because they already had the tools on hand. As knowledge about human anatomy, including the jaw, increased, dentistry as a practice began to emerge in the 18th century; surgeries became part and parcel of medical care by the mid-19th century. Medical and dental training since has long been separated and evolved in separate silos.
So while oral health care at a macro level has largely improved over the past half century, too many Americans are still falling through the cracks when it comes to getting the care we need. And as we all know, when your mouth hurts, everything hurts – not to mention the fact that one’s oral health can have a huge impact on his or her overall health.
But there is optimism – it’s just that dental and health care professionals need to revamp how such care is delivered as we thank about what’s next in improving public health.
“We feel oral health problems are almost 100 percent preventable, but the system is set up to pay for intervention, instead of paying for prevention. And so that's really why we're trying to change the system,” explained Corcoran.
Programs such as Preventistry are part of what Corcoran described as a five-point plan that could help improve and expand dental care to Americans. First of all, care needs to focus more on prevention, not just treatment. That in part relies on ensuring oral care is included rather than excluded when we approach an individual’s overall health. Third, DentaQuest is working on expanding oral health access, in part through programs like Medicare for elder Americans. Fourth, the company is working with schools and community organizations can help make oral care more accessible. And finally, DentaQuest envisions a system of “value-based care” that rewards positive and healthy outcomes rather than focusing on procedures.
It sounds complicated, and we cannot expect professions resting on centuries of precedent to turn on a dime. The good news, explained Corcoran, is that within the major stakeholders with a vested interest in the dental care sector – which includes dentists, employers, medical professionals, patients and Medicaid directors – there is plenty of agreement that things can and will change. “This not an insolvable problem,” added Corcoran, “People understand the opportunities that exist to fix it.”
One challenge is that most medical professionals have little knowledge about dental care fundamentals – and in fairness, that is because they weren’t trained. Yet at the same time, more emergency room doctors and nurses are seeing patients with dental needs come through their doors. There are two problems with this process: first, this is hardly a system that is sustainable in the long run, and frequently, it turns out that many of these visits are not necessarily emergencies but can be taken care of in a dental office. But again, questions about access and affordability arise; further integration of medical and dental care would help solve this ongoing challenge.
“We want to collaborate with primary care providers to provide them with protocols and approaches to identify oral care issues early on. We also want to connect primary care physicians and dentists with community health workers,” insisted Corcoran. “It's a question of raising awareness and making sure physicians and nurse practitioners have the ability and the confidence to understand what’s happening in their patient's mouths.”
The result is a company taking a stand; in the case of DentaQuest, it’s through disruption. Part of this plan is what the company calls its MORE (medical oral expanded care) initiative, which seeks to provide preventive oral health services in primary care medical offices to underserved communities. The testing of what the company describes as “patient-centered referral systems” between both primary care and dental care teams is also part of this program. To date, this program has rolled out in community health centers in rural Colorado, Oregon, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.
More access to affordable dental care, more opportunities to take care of one’s health in rural areas and less complicated system boosting health and wellness? DentaQuest’s strategy to work within the system in order to make it more equitable and accessible offers other health care and insurance companies a template as to how to improve public health – and their reputation with consumers.
Image credit: Pixabay
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.