Oral health is much more than a cosmetic concern

As a primary care doctor, much of my focus is on preventive care. While most patients anticipate my promoting the benefits of a healthy heart, balanced diet and regular exercise, many are surprised when I emphasize the importance of oral health.

Study after study has linked oral health to overall health. Dental problems may affect conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, poor nutrition, systemic infection and even preterm labor.

Studies also have shown correlations between poor dental health and poor school performance for children. Untreated dental disease can have lasting, damaging effects on children’s development by disrupting sleep, and making it harder to learn and communicate.

We also know that prevention is effective, and that untreated dental problems ultimately lead to a lifetime of unhealthy adult teeth and expensive dental treatment. Yet, I have seen firsthand many patients, in particular low-income adults and children, who struggle to get the dental care they need.

When the Washington State Board of Health recently released recommendations aimed at improving the oral health of all Washington residents, it was the first time the state formally recognized that dental diseases impact general health.

The board recommendations urge us all – health care professionals, government, social service agencies and citizens – to support efforts that improve oral health and advocate for collaboration. Doctors, nurses and pharmacists are urged to incorporate oral health into their practices and dentists to partner with social service agencies to help young mothers, seniors, diabetics, and low-income children and adults get the dental care they need.

The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department has long been a proponent of similar strategies. Its oral health program is based on the guiding principles that it is in everyone’s interest to look after the whole body – including the mouth.

The Health Department has raised doctors’ awareness that they play an important role in the oral health of our children by emphasizing the integration of oral care into well-child checks.

Pierce County’s poorest children also are able to get the dental care they need through ABCD (Access to Baby and Child Dentistry), a nationally recognized program that ensures children age 6 and under see a dentist. ABCD establishes a referral network of doctors, dentists, social service agencies and early childhood development programs to identify and reach out to low-income children and their parents.

In the past, some of my patients with painful mouth problems had to go to the emergency room for care. Some even stood outside a clinic at 6 a.m., hoping an opening might appear that day.

I look forward to the day when patients are no longer turned away due to lack of available services. Even better, we can prevent cavities from happening in the first place.

Community water fluoridation is lauded by the Centers for Disease Control as one of the top 10 public health achievements of the last century. Yet in Pierce County, just 44 percent of county residents have access to fluoridated water, well below the state’s 65 percent and the national average of 74 percent.

Individuals also need to do their part by taking care of their teeth. Brush twice a day and floss daily. Get a regular dental check-up. Every cavity you prevent saves you money and protects you from the risks of infection.

It’s time we rethink oral health as a necessity for healthy living, not a cosmetic luxury. We can do better. We can all be healthier.

Dr. Stephen Cook is a family physician at Paladina Health and member of the Tacoma-Pierce County Board of Health.