Historically, healthcare systems have treated oral health as separate from the rest of the body. However, dental care does more than promote oral health. It makes the whole person healthy too.
A growing body of research shows a direct link between oral health and many chronic health conditions. For example, gum disease is associated with increased risk for heart disease and stroke, and may also make it more difficult for people with diabetes to manage their insulin levels.
In addition, women with poor oral health are at higher risk of being diagnosed with high blood pressure and giving birth to underweight or premature babies. If not treated early, cavities and tooth decay can lead to a headache, earache, fever or sinus infection that could spread to the blood and brain.
Health equity is another important topic to discuss in the national conversation about medical-dental integration. Millions of Americans live in areas that do not have enough dentists to serve the local population. Socioeconomic barriers contribute to disparities in access to care, and disproportionately affect the most vulnerable and underserved members of our community.
Given the strong connection between oral health and physical health, it is critical to adopt an approach to care that integrates dental medicine into primary care and behavioral health to support the wellbeing of the whole person.
This approach is supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is working to integrate medical and dental services in public health settings for populations with unmet oral health needs and associated chronic diseases. Creating policies that decrease disparities in tooth decay and increase collaboration between medical and dental health providers are key strategies to promote change.
San Fernando Community Health Center is one of many federally qualified health centers taking a leadership role in this national effort. This involves educating patients about the importance of dental care to their overall health and wellbeing, with an emphasis on routine check-ups and preventive care.
February is National Children’s Oral Health Month, making this a perfect time to ask a trusted family pediatrician for a referral to a dentist. Having a dental home early in life puts children on the path to long-term oral and physical health. Together, we can help create healthier individuals, families and communities.