As we enter week two of Dental Hygiene Month, KOHC is highlighting the importance of treating the whole person. And, to treat the whole person, our health system needs to recognize and bridge the silos between medical care and dental care. We know there is a strong connection between good oral health and overall health. The mouth acts as a gateway to the rest of the body and can be an indicator for other health concerns throughout the body. Tooth decay has been linked to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other adverse medical conditions, so integrating oral health care in primary care practices is a great way to make this connection within healthcare.
Medical-dental integration has been an important strategy for increasing access to care for vulnerable populations. The COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affected lower-income Americans and communities of color, making that strategy even more critical. As patients visit their primary care office for medical treatment, for example, there’s an opportunity for primary care providers to address oral health by assessing oral health risk and reinforcing at-home care messaging, and creating an access point for patients to find a local dentist who might not otherwise seek dental care.
There are many ways for primary care providers to effectively incorporate dental services into their practices including:
- Assisting parents in completing an oral health risk assessment—the American Academy of Pediatrics offers downloadable tools and resources for use.
- Utilizing the Smiles for Life curriculum to learn how to integrate oral health services, such as fluoride varnish application, into a medical clinic. In Kentucky, Medicaid reimburses for fluoride varnish services up to two times in 12 months for 1 to 5 year-olds at $15. Fluoride varnish is an effective preventive oral health service, especially for children in need.
- Providing patients with nutrition and oral hygiene education and counseling, which can be added to the practice’s website or printed from resources such as the American Dental Association and the Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.
- Reassuring pregnant women that it is safe and recommended to continue receiving routine oral health exams, cleanings, and treatment throughout their pregnancy and helping them find a dental provider if needed.
Medical-dental integration is a great way to screen for oral health problems, refer to dental professionals, and inform parents on the importance of oral health. Optimal oral health can lead to better overall health outcomes for both children and adults throughout their lifetime.