The Dental Trade Alliance believes it has a way to save the U.S. health care system, government and businesses billions of dollars a year and make Americans healthier. The secret: Get people to the dentist every year.
A new white paper, “An Unexpected Strategy for Reducing Health Care Cost,” released by the DTA to members in April, focuses on what it calls a simple biological truth — that the health of our mouths affects the health of our bodies.
DTA last year commissioned Uma Kelekar, PhD, assistant professor of health care management at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia, to study the costs and benefits of expanding oral health care. The report suggests ways that relatively inexpensive routine dental care could bring health care costs down by eliminating the need for more drastic and expensive treatment later. Among the key findings:
Systemic diseases — A United Concordia Oral Health Study led by Marjorie Jeffcoat, DMD, looked at people with systemic diseases: type 2 diabetes, stroke or coronary artery disease. Analyzing more than 330,000 insurance records, researchers found that when patients received treatment for gum disease, their medical costs and hospital visits decreased. Annual savings were as high as $5,681 per person, with hospitalization decreasing as much as 39.4%. Hospitalization decreased most significantly among patients with diabetes.
Pregnancy — Poor oral health is associated with low birth weight, preterm birth, preeclampsia and gestational diabetes. Jeffcoat’s study found average savings of $2,433 per pregnancy when mothers received periodontal treatment.
Lung disease — When doctors in one intensive care unit administered an oral care treatment costing $3 per patient, they saw ventilator-associated pneumonia (VAP) cases — which can cost $10,000-$40,000 each — decrease by 46%.
So how do we do better? DTA makes these suggestions: Insurance companies can offer oral health care as a core service. Policymakers can mandate dental coverage. Businesses can design dental wellness programs for employees. Physicians can actively refer patients to dentists. Dentists can extend office hours to help patients avoid the emergency room. Pediatricians and primary care physicians can incorporate basic dental treatments — such as fluoride varnishes and sealants — into annual checkups.
The DTA plans to take this argument to decision makers in government and business.
BY THE (BIG) NUMBERS
According to the DTA white paper, here are examples of how much money the United States could save each year by expanding access to dental care.
Figures based on 2014 population and 2014 dollars