The Importance of Measuring Dental Health in Populations

Dovetail Blog Post

The American healthcare industry is moving away from the traditional fee-based system to a more patient centric, value-based model. As the care continuum draws closer, population health management is emerging as a key tool in preventive care. EHR systems help with collaboration and exchanging data between different care providers for the same patient. Unfortunately dentists are often left out of the loop when it comes to both individual and population health management.

Dental Care Falling by the Wayside

The dentist’s chair is an image that inspires fear in many. It causes people to put off accessing dental care until a problem becomes too painful to ignore. Different insurance plans for dental and health needs does not help the situation either. Patients lack education and awareness about different treatment options. Most people believe that any dental procedure is accompanied by discomfort and pain even when that is not the case.

The fact that dental practices have unique requirements and distinct workflows from other doctors (which necessitates separate EHR software) has deepened the divide. Dental professionals provide crucial preventive services that contribute towards overall health outcomes. Unfortunately dental care falls by the wayside in discussions – and implementation – of population health management tools.

Why Is It Important to Measure Dental Health?

Adequate dental care has a significant impact on population health. Dentists are the first line of defense for any oral infections, diseases and illnesses. Gum diseases and infections can spread to other parts of the body if treatment is delayed. Detection and treatment of oral cancer can impact other health problems of the patient. Since dental care is not integrated with population health management systems, diagnosis and treatment can often clash with one another.

This works in the other direction as well. Patients who suffer from chronic illnesses like diabetes have a higher chance of experiencing dental problems. Treatment options can become limited by other drugs or medicines that the patient is using at the time. Unfortunately dental care is an afterthought for these high-risk patients. Better integration would ensure that these problems are detected and treated on time.

Dental data can add to our understanding of the healthcare system in other ways. For instance, poverty and lack of education inhibit a person’s access to adequate dental care. Demographic variables like age, race and ethnicity, gender and income also influence a patient’s ability to access dental care.  Uninsured patients are less likely to seek treatment or accept expensive procedures that can solve their problems. There are significant differences between patients who access dental care under public and private insurance programs as well. Measuring dental health in populations can help us understand these socioeconomic patterns of healthcare access.

Dental issues are some of the most common chronic conditions in the American population, for both children and adults. However dental care doesn’t receive the same media attention as other high-risk illnesses like diabetes or obesity. This limits the discussion on population health management and leads to inadequate data analysis overall. Measuring the dental health of various populations can help in influencing the outcomes of various programs.

Good dental care can positively impact patients who are otherwise at risk for certain illnesses. Patients who visit a dentist regularly reduce their risk for heart disease, diabetes and chronic oral pain. Some experts feel that good dental care can improve positive outcomes for patients and even reduce healthcare spending overall.

We can see that it is important to add dental care to the priorities of population health management. Better coordination and collaboration between care providers – dental and others – has the potential to improve outcomes, reduce costs and enhance health care access to the most vulnerable segments of the population.

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