Not having access to affordable dental treatment impacts many people’s lives in ways that stretch far beyond having the perfect Hollywood smile. From an increase in developing serious diseases and worsening already-present health conditions to being socially-stigmatized and less likely to find work, the lack of economical dentistry in the United States further widens the gap between rich and poor in our society.
According to the National Association of Dental Plans, at the end of 2016:
- 249.1 million Americans had dental benefits.
- 89.9 million Americans received dental benefits through public programs like Medicaid.
- 74 million Americans had no dental coverage at all.
Despite the massive connection between dental and overall health, there are four times as many people without dental coverage as there are without medical coverage. When financial reasons make people choose between the two, most opt for medical cover and pay little attention to their oral health.
While dentists in the US provide excellent care to patients who can afford it, people who can’t are left behind and are forced to face difficulties most of us will have rarely encountered.
Here are just some of the things not being able to afford a visit to the dentist can result in.
Periodontal disease (gum infection) is connected to an increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Not only that, but diabetes and unhealthy habits like smoking also increase the chances of cardiovascular and oral health problems.
People who can’t afford regular dental checkups are more susceptible to periodontal disease and other oral infections because there’s no one to spot them early on. This in turn can develop into all kinds of serious and long-term health problems.
Increase of viruses
Not being able to afford dental treatment also puts people at a greater risk of contracting coronaviruses, including the latest COVID-19. Because of the close proximity to their patients, dentists are at an advantage when it comes to spotting symptoms of the coronavirus.
One of the most effective ways of stopping the spread of COVID-19 is to follow social distancing protocol and keep away from others. Many poor people live in cramped conditions with others. This makes social distancing practically impossible, putting poorer people at more risk of catching viruses than richer people.
Diagnosing serious viruses such as COVID-19 early on has multiple benefits. The individual diagnosed with the virus benefits because they receive treatment faster and suffer fewer health implications. The whole world benefits, too, because the virus has less of a chance to spread and infect others.
If people had more access to affordable dentistry, the rate of all kinds of health problems could be dramatically lowered, resulting in a greater quality of life for individuals, less of a strain on our medical services and countless lives saved.
Pregnant women who can’t afford dental care are forced to put their babies’ health at risk. A 2014 study revealed women who had significant plaque coverage on their teeth were more likely to experience a preterm delivery than women who had healthy, mostly plaque-free teeth.
Poor oral health is directly connected to toothache and tooth loss. Experiencing pain or difficulty when eating can greatly limit the types of foods someone can comfortably eat. As a result, someone who is struggling financially will turn to cheap easy-to-eat foods. Often this type of food isn’t wholesome, resulting in a bad diet which can lead to further health implications.
The difficulties which arise from not being able to afford dental care go beyond health. People with bad teeth are commonly stigmatized in social and professional settings. People make many judgements about others, including ideas about their intelligence, according to how aesthetically pleasing their teeth are.
In a Brazilian study, investigators presented recruiters with two pictures of potential candidates: one with dental problems and one without. The picture of the person with dental problems was judged as being less intelligent and was less likely to be hired.
According to the New York Times, ⅓ of adults with incomes below 138% of the poverty level (low enough to qualify for Medicaid in most states) claim how their teeth and mouth look has negatively impacted their ability to get a job. In comparison, just 15% of adults with incomes over 400% of the poverty level felt the same.
As well as affecting how likely you are to succeed at an interview, the look of your teeth can also impact your earning potential. A study on water fluoridation, a process which protects teeth from decay, showed that women who lived in an area with fluoride in the water earned 4% more than women who didn’t.
In 2007, Deamonte Driver, a 12-year-old from Prince George’s County, Md, died when bacteria from an untreated dental abscess spread to his brain. His mother had done her best to get dental care for Deamonte by hiring a lawyer who specializes in working with homeless families. The lawyer and her staff made more than 24 phone calls before they eventually found a dentist who would treat Deamonte. However, before Deamonte’s appointment date arrived, his mother lost her Medicaid coverage and Deamonte was denied treatment.
How Medicaid helps
The eligibility requirements and cover of Medicaid take many different forms according to the state and the individual. While all states are obliged to cover dental benefits for children from low-income families, they have no such accountability to adults.
The population that qualifies for Medicaid is significantly more likely to require dental care and much less likely to be able to afford it than those with private dental plans. At the same time, people with incomes low enough to be eligible for Medicaid are twice as likely to suffer from untreated tooth decay, in comparison to their higher-income counterparts.
How you can help
While dental practices aren’t duty-bound to treat patients with Medicaid, you should definitely consider it. Many dentists claim the amount Medicaid pays (approximately 50% of the full price) isn’t enough to cover the basic costs. If this is the case for your practice, consider only treating a restricted number of Medicaid patients per month. Even if the number of patients you treat seems redundant, you’re still doing your part to help.
Another option is to host free dentistry days whenever you can. Dentistry from the Heart can help you plan the event and ensure everything runs smoothly. You can connect with other dentists, dental hygienists and dental assistants in your local community by asking them to join you and offer their services for free for just one day. If you can’t find enough volunteers, you can hire temporary dental staff from Cloud Dentistry exclusively for the duration of the event. This is a great way to keep your costs and paperwork down to an absolute minimum
Bridging the gap
It’s in all our best interests to take care of each other and look after our society. As a dental practice owner, it’s important you do what you can to make affordable dental treatments available to people whose lives will be hugely impacted otherwise. Just one simple treatment can help someone avoid a chronic disease, get the job they need to feed their family, and change their life.