The Herald’s editorial “Sign of a system in crisis” brings attention to the importance of oral health and the use of hospital emergency rooms by people with dental problems. The solution is seemingly simple: good oral health practices can prevent costly emergency room visits.
As dentists, we see two key barriers to this solution: lack of knowledge about the importance of oral health and Washington’s fractured dental safety net. We believe finding cost effective solutions to these problems will reduce dental related emergency room visits and improve the overall health of our residents.
Low oral health literacy is one of the most significant barriers to dental care. Dentists cannot provide care unless patients see a need for treatment. Even among people with dental insurance, less than 60 percent visit the dentist for regular preventive care. Laws and regulation will not change this, but education can. The Washington Oral Health Foundation, the charitable arm of the Washington State Dental Association, works throughout the state in schools and community centers to educate people about the importance of oral health. Only when we address issues like fear, cultural and language barriers, and lack of knowledge will we begin to solve real problems for many Washingtonians.
Unfortunately, programs that provide dental care for low-income people have been severely cut in Olympia. That penny-wise, pound-foolish decision will result in more pain for patients and more expense for taxpayers. Washington dentists are doing their part, providing charity care to more than 100,000 patients in 2011 alone. However, charity care is not a sustainable health care system.
Some, like the Pew Foundation, suggest that a lesser trained person with no real supervision should treat the most vulnerable. As dentists we know that, instead of lowering the quality of care to those most in need, the better answer is dramatically ramped up prevention and oral health education programs — prevent the problem before it becomes an emergency.
Dr. Rod Wentworth, president
Washington State Dental Association
Dr. Stephen Lee, president
Snohomish County Dental Society