Apr 10 2012
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Making Oral Health Care Accessible

Former Health & Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan, MD, penned an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times making the case for devising more effective ways to deliver dental care to poor or rural communities across the nation.

The Secretary notes that, in 2009, 83,000 emergency room visits resulted from preventable dental problems. “In my state of Georgia,” he writes, “visits to the ER for oral health problems cost more than $23 million in 2007. According to more recent data from Florida, the bill exceeded $88 million. And dental disease is the No. 1 chronic childhood disease, sending more children in search of medical treatment than asthma. In a nation obsessed with high-tech medicine, people are not getting preventive care for something as simple as tooth decay.”

He goes on to list several reasons: 50 million of us live in poor or rural areas without a dentist; most dentists do not accept Medicaid; and we have a dentist shortage that will only be exacerbated when 5.3 million children are added to Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program by way of the Affordable Care Act.

Sullivan argues that the federal government should put programs in place to train more dentists. But more than that, he argues for training dental therapists “who can provide preventive care and routine procedures like sealants, fillings and simple extractions outside the confines of a traditional dentist’s office.” He says such an approach has been particularly effective in Alaska, where the state has recruited and trained dental therapists to serve many of that state’s most remote communities, including many that are accessible only by plane, dogsled or snowmobile.

A recently announced effort by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) takes aim at the very same problem. The Oral Health Workforce initiative is designed to improve access to oral health care by identifying and studying replicable models that make the best use of the health and health care workforce to provide preventive oral health services.

Such projects might include training non-dental providers to provide preventive services, training and deploying new types of dental professionals—dental therapists, for example; or finding ways to bring dental professionals to non-dental settings where people least likely to receive oral health care gather.

RWJF is now seeking nominations for the initiative and the deadline for those nominations was recently extended until April 13. If you know of an innovative program that makes oral health care accessible to patients who might not otherwise get it, please consider nominating it.

For more information on the Oral Health Workforce initiative, read a blog post on the subject by David Krol, MD, MPH, FAAP, RWJF Human Capital Portfolio Team Director and Senior Program Officer.

Read the guidelines and nominate a program.

Tags: Oral health, Access and barriers to care, Medically underserved areas, Education and training , Recruitment and retention, Rural, Human Capital, Dental, Grant Awards, Health & Health Care Policy, Oral Health Workforce Initiative, Underserved Populations