Does access to dental insurance prompt better oral healthcare?

Particularly during campaign season, we often hear about the cost of healthcare, access to healthcare, and how dental care fits into these issues. Candidate Bernie Sanders, for example, was quoted as saying that access to affordable dental care is one of the issues plaguing socioeconomically disadvantaged groups. A study from 2014, however, found that access to affordable, high-quality dental care doesn’t necessarily mean people will see the value of dental care, use it, and seek it out.

A study conducted by the University of Maryland School of Dentistry and published online in the American Journal of Public Health found that providing access to dental coverage did little to change oral healthcare behaviors. Instead, providing dental coverage is only successful when it’s also offered alongside outreach and education efforts. It’s true that oral healthcare habits like brushing, flossing, and having regular dental cleanings are taught from early childhood. When a population hasn’t invested in oral healthcare over time, it’s difficult to enact the behaviors supporting oral healthcare without also providing the education and support for doing so.

And why does all of this matter? Because all healthcare bears a public cost, and lack of dental care leads to other, more expensive healthcare outcomes. Tooth infection and tooth pain are common causes for emergency room visits. Gingivitis and other forms of gum disease contribute to diabetes, stroke, and heart attack cases. The elderly often suffer from poor nutrition following tooth loss. In many ways, dental care is one of the best indicators of and prevention methods for keeping these chronic, long-term, expensive measures of poor health at bay. So what factors contribute to using dental care?

  • Data from the Health and Retirement Study of 2008 allowed researchers to determine whether those with dental care coverage were using it more often than those without insurance coverage. The scientists found that providing dental coverage to uninsured older Americans who do not tend to use dental care will not necessarily mean that, once insured, those people will seek dental care.
  • What did induce usage of dental care coverage was outreach.
  • Outreach needed to focus on knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and tastes regarding dental care as well as health status and income.
  • Education and marketing outreach about the importance of dental care to overall health could alter these factors and make people who get coverage more likely to use it.
  • Improving the economy and the unemployment rate could also affect the problem for the better.
  • The number of providers available in the market could also affect the likelihood that patients will use their dental coverage, supporting the development of programs encouraging people to enter the field of dentistry.

Getting patients access to dental care and encouraging them to use it benefits the overall economy by driving down the cost of treatment for chronic, preventable disease. And while this study didn’t investigate it, other studies have shown that dental visits can be useful as a general health screening service, as many overall health concerns show up in the teeth and soft tissues of the mouth before they’re even known to the patient.

Integration between dental health care and medical care providers may be a model for future healthcare management that would benefit the overall economy and improve public health. During this election season, it’s up to candidates to lay out their platforms for addressing larger public health and economic concerns, but to anecdotally support access without also supporting larger incentive or education programs has proven ineffective in the past.

For your family, the most important way to ensure future oral health and overall wellness is to continue practicing the basics: brush twice daily with a toothpaste containing fluoride, floss regularly, use a mouthwash if necessary, and visit Dr. Shields twice annually for your exam and professional dental cleaning. Your family’s oral health care habits positively impact your budget, your children’s future budget, our overall public health, and support a climate of dental health and wellness for everyone.

If it’s time for your biannual cleaning, contact our office to schedule an appointment. Dr. Shields will be happy to spend time answering any dental or general health questions you may have in support of your total body wellness!


University of Maryland, Baltimore. (2014, January 15). Study: Providing dental insurance not enough to induce americans to seek care. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 4, 2016 from


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