Better Health Together Op-Ed on Oral Health Innovation

Dr. Jim Sledge of the Washington State Board of Health talks regional oral health improvements at the Spokane Oral Health Symposium on April 30, 2015.  Photo courtesy: Empire Health Foundation.

Dr. Jim Sledge of the Washington State Board of Health talks regional oral health improvements at the Spokane Oral Health Symposium on April 30, 2015.  Photo courtesy: Empire Health Foundation.

Originally published June 6, 2015 in the Spokesman Review.

More than 60 community and health leaders recently met in Spokane to discuss how to implement the state Board of Health’s recommendations to improve oral health in Washington.

It makes sense to have this conversation in Spokane because our community has long been home to tenacious problem solvers who have a history of developing innovative oral health programs that improve the lives of families in our region and beyond.

For example, when we became fed up with the rampant tooth decay in low-income children, Spokane launched Access to Baby & Child Dentistry (ABCD) in 1995. Now operating in all 39 counties in Washington and recognized nationally, ABCD has helped connect children in low-income families to dental care with trained, caring dentists.

Similarly, when the Washington State Hospital Association released a report highlighting that preventable dental treatments were the No. 1 reason low-income adults in Washington were visiting emergency rooms, Spokane again responded. Dental Emergencies Needing Treatment (DENT), a program of Better Health Together, helps find dental care for adults seeking expensive emergency room care for painful yet preventable dental problems. In 2014, we saw over $634,000 in savings to the Providence Health Care System, and over 1,000 patients already have been connected to care in 2015. These individuals are on a path toward a better future, while also saving millions in avoidable ER costs.

We may look at these successes and assume that further efforts to improve oral health are unnecessary. But the huge demand for these programs clearly shows that there are significant unmet dental needs in the Spokane region. Thriving communities require healthy people, so as a community, we must continue to build on these efforts at a programmatic and policy level.

We should follow the recommendations of the state Board of Health and take action to improve oral health. Tooth decay is easily preventable, but it continues to be the No. 1 chronic childhood disease. Painful cavities can impact school attendance and academic achievement. Dental disease and unsightly teeth can make it difficult to get a job, and can be expensive to treat. Gum disease affects overall health and has been linked to heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other chronic illnesses. Businesses benefit when employees do not miss work because they or their children have dental problems.

There are safe and cost-effective steps we can take to reduce tooth decay, cut needless spending and improve the health of everyone in our community. After a careful review of all the scientific evidence, the Board of Health is encouraging communities to consider a number of strategies. Let’s lead the effort, right here in Spokane.

Medical providers have regular and consistent contact with patients and are well-positioned to pay attention to patients’ oral health, deliver prevention like fluoride varnish, and connect them with care. Collaboration among health professionals improves patient care and health. It is time to stop separating the mouth from the rest of the body. You’re not healthy without a healthy mouth.

We still have much to learn and do to improve oral health. Many are surprised to know that because Spokane families do not have access to water with fluoride, our community is at risk for 25 percent more cavities over a lifetime when compared to people in most other cities in America.

Working to improve oral health is part of Better Health Together’s vision to radically improve the overall health and well-being of everyone in the region. When people have access to dental care and preventive treatments, our state and local policies align to support whole person care, we will not only prevent needless dental emergencies, but also will help reduce the burden of chronic disease for Spokane residents and taxpayers. How much more could we save by keeping our mouths healthy? That is a question worth chewing on.

Alison Carl White is executive director of Better Health Together, which is dedicated to radically improving the health of our region through innovative and collaborative action.