Let’s Maintain Area’s Innovation in Oral Health

Published in The Spokesman-Review

It makes sense to have this conversation in Spokane because our community has long been home to tenacious problems solvers who have a history of developing innovative oral health programs that improve the lives of families in our region and beyond.

For example, when we became fed-up up with the rampant tooth decay in low-income children, Spokane launched the Access to Baby & Child Dentistry (ABCD) in 1995. Now operating in all 39 counties in Washington and recognized nationally, ABCD has helped connect children in low-income families to dental care with trained, caring dentists.

Similarly, when the Washington State Hospital Association released a report highlighting that preventable dental treatments were the number one reason low- income adults in Washington were visiting the Emergency Room, Spokane again responded. The Dental Emergencies Needing Treatment (DENT), a program of Better Health Together, helps find dental care for adults seeking expensive emergency room care for painful, yet preventable dental problems. In 2014, we saw over $634,000 in savings to Providence Health Care System and over 1,000 patients have already been connected to care in 2015. These individuals are on a path towards a better future, while also saving millions in avoidable ER costs.

We may look at these successes and assume that further efforts to improve oral health are unnecessary. But the huge demand for these programs clearly shows that there are significant unmet dental needs in the Spokane region. Thriving communities require healthy people, so as a community, we must continue to build on these efforts at a programmatic and policy level.

We should follow the recommendations of the State Board of Health (BOH) and take action to improve oral health. Tooth decay is easily preventable, but it continues to be the number one chronic childhood disease. Painful cavities can impact school attendance and academic achievement. Dental disease and unsightly teeth can make it difficult to get a job and can be expensive to treat. Gum disease affects overall health and has been linked to heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other chronic illnesses. Businesses benefit when employees do not miss work because they or their children have dental problems.

There are safe and cost effective steps we can take to reduce tooth decay, cut needless spending and improve the health of everyone in our community. After a careful review of all the scientific evidence, the Board of Health is encouraging communities to consider a number of strategies. Let’s lead the effort, right here in Spokane.

Medical providers have regular and consistent contact with patients and are well-positioned to pay attention to patients’ oral health, deliver prevention like fluoride varnish, and connect them with care. Collaboration between health professionals improves patient care and health. It is time to stop separating the mouth from the rest of the body. You’re not healthy without a healthy mouth.

We still have much to learn and do to improve oral health. Many are surprised to know that because Spokane families do not have access to water with fluoride, our community is at risk for 25 percent more cavities over a lifetime when compared to people in most other cities in America.

Working to improve oral health is part of the Better Health Together’s vision to radically improve the overall health and wellbeing of everyone in the region. When people have access to dental care and preventive treatments, our state and local policies align to support whole person care, we will not only prevent needless dental emergencies, but will also help reduce the burden of chronic disease for Spokane residents and taxpayers. How much more could we save by keeping our mouths healthy? That is a question worth chewing on.