THE BLOG
08/06/2013 03:51 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2013

Dental Divide Widens in U.S.

Depending on where you live in the United States, access to proper dental care may differ. According to a recent report by The Pew Charitable Trusts, there are two distinct reasons for the inconsistent dental care available in the United States: People who are on Medicaid don't have access to an appropriate amount of dentists in their area, and there is an uneven distribution of dentists available. The study found that a staggering 45,115,590 Americans are living in an area with dentist shortages.

States that suffer the most

Nationwide, more than 14 million children in low-income homes don't have access to proper dental care. At 75 percent, Florida has the highest percentage of children who are enrolled in Medicaid and did not visit a dentist in 2011, according to the research. Wisconsin came in second with 71.5 percent, Indiana with 67 percent, North Dakota with 66.4 percent and Missouri with 62.9 percent. These eye-opening statistics may have some policymakers rethinking the health care system and availability of dental care throughout the country. In total, 22 states in the country have a high percentage of children who are in enrolled in Medicaid, yet who did not receive proper care in 2011.

Solving the problem

Currently, 37 percent of dental professionals are over the age of 55 and close to retirement age. This means that in the coming years, there are going to be even fewer dentists available. Recently, there has been controversy over the addition of dental therapists to the workforce, who would have similar duties a nurse has in a doctor's office. These new members of the dental team can improve the lack of access to many Americans, as one in seven live in an area where there is very little availability. These mid-level practitioners would be able to serve more people at a lower cost. While they would not be able to perform dental cavity treatments, a dental therapist's job would be more centered on preventative care. These providers are currently available in Minnesota and some areas of Alaska.

Adding a dental therapist to a team could also streamline the amount of practices that a dentist can take care of in a year because they will have someone to handle the less-severe therapies. According to The Pew Charitable Trusts, dentists would be able to provide 5,157 more procedures in a year.

Decreasing the costs

As a large amount of Americans don't have access to dental care, an increasing amount of individuals are heading to the emergency room for dental-related issues. According to another study by The Pew Charitable Trusts, more than 115,000 hospital visits for dental issues in Florida cost $88 million in 2010. One-third of those visits were made by Medicaid patients across the state. As previously stated, Florida has the highest percentage of children who did not visit the dentist, which proves the importance of having regular cleanings. In Arizona, nearly one-half of ER visits due to dental problems were made by Medicaid patients. This means that taxpayers are footing much of the bill to cover costs.

In New York, the cost of treating children who visited the hospital or ambulatory surgery centers for dental-related issues skyrocketed from $18.5 million in 2004 to more than $31 million in 2008.

Why dental health is important

Beyond having a bright white smile, a clean mouth can influence the health of the entire body. If a child has a large amount of bacteria in the mouth due to a high level of dental plaque, tooth decay is much more prevalent. Additionally, bacteria can cause damage to the gums and lead to periodontal disease. The mouth is the gateway to the body, and having a high level of bacteria can increase an individual's chances of heart disease and diabetes.

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that gingivitis and bacteria can increase the risk of stroke and heart disease. Additionally, a study conducted by the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research noted a direct link between periodontal disease and cardiovascular disease. In the study, researchers collected samples from 657 older adults to check for 11 different types of oral bacteria. Four of those variations are thought to cause gum disease.

"These same four bacteria were there, they were always there in the analysis, and the relationship seems to be pretty much, with one exception, limited to them," Moïse Desvarieux, M. D., Ph. D., the study's lead author and an infectious disease epidemiologist at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and the University of Minnesota, said.

Bills have been proposed at a state and national level but many are voted down quickly. However, there is a necessity for action to be taken to improve the health of children without proper access and decrease the costs coming from taxpayers' pockets.