SHOULD ORAL HEALTH BE A PART OF HEALTH CARE?
DOES ORAL HEALTH HAVE A PLACE IN PRIMARY CARE?
HOW IMPORTANT IS ORAL HEALTH IN PRIMARY CARE? This is a primordial gripe of mine--that in the US the people who set up health care have not noticed that oral health (i.e., teeth) are important to health. Existing statistics show that 33% of the entire US population is edentulous by age 60, all of which is easily preventable. This great neglect of oral health starts from the first day of medical school when students are taught how to do physical exams--"Open your mouth. Say "aaahhhh", and then they look at the uvula (an anatomic structure of no clinical significance) and the tonsils (which are irrelevant if the patient is not symptomatic with sore throat). Each and every time one of us does this part of the exam we are looking right past the teeth. Dental health turns out to be very easy to assess. If we hadn't been taught systematically to ignore it, it is something that we would do just because it was obvious.
Whenever studies have been done to evaluate the most important components of a routine physical exam, the teeth and gums are always in the top 5 high-yield targets, both for pediatrics and adult medicine. (I mean, think of it; most of a comprehensive routine physical exam is pure wasted effort--but NOT the teeth!) So when was the last time, when you asked the patient to "Open up and say 'aaahhhh'," that you actually noted the status of the teeth and gums. Make an effort. It matters. Only if you catch these problems early can you manage them without dental referral. We, as primary care physicians, are the ones who get the biggest opportunity to see teeth and give instruction and advice that would be accepted.
The Secrets of the Oral Health Exam
1. Look for holes. Holes are not supposed to be there. Holes are easy to spot. If there is any question whether it is a hole or not, it is not a hole. Big holes are left by missing teeth, which are extremely obvious. Every physical exam should describe the approximate (%) of teeth that are either carious or missing.
2. Look at the gums (right up front--your nose is almost bumping into them when you look at the uvula). Health gums should have nice, sharp, steep interdental pink tissue (papillae). The first sign of gum disease is that the tips of these become blunted and the height of the papilla becomes lower as the gums recede. This is a very early sign at a stage where it is still quite correctable with good hygiene. In the more advanced stage the entire gum recedes from the bottom of the exposed part of the teeth and you start to see the roots. Every physical exam of the head and neck should include a description of the height of the interdental papillae and the relative placing of the gum line across the normal neck of the teeth.
People who have either of these findings should receive dental care. But, ay, there's the rub. Most of our patients will not have insurance for dental health. It is not regarded as part of general health coverage. We can get you a gastric bypass surgery but not a simple teeth cleaning. We sit back and wait for this time bomb to go off, and then the patient presents to the emergency room as the only place they can get any care for their acute dental pain. I am amazed at the number of patients I treated for recurrent tooth abscess with antibiotics. They take the antibiotics and a pain medication, but are unable to see a dentist for definitive treatment so they just come back in when it hurts again. And it goes on and on. What we need is a study that shows that good dental care saves general health costs down the road. I have never seen one. If you have, please let me know.
Recently I got an email from a reader, Adam Jason, who has a special interest in this problem. He has prepared an infographic available on the web. I share it with you here by permission. It is a worthy reminder of an important health and primary care issue.
Emergency Room Dentists:
The High Costs of Life or Death Dental Care (Infographic)
Our latest graphic explains the costs and causes of this overall decline in preventative care. Dental care is really an investment against future costs, but we can’t blame the uninsured for avoiding costly cleanings and checkups. It’s a costly gamble to forego dental insurance. Routine checkups at the ER will get astronomical fast, not to mention the terrifying costs behind contracting a serious dental disease or injury.
Going along with the infographic, it comes down to reform. Insurance-wise, it seems that dental costs need to be reduced in order for more employers to provide coverage. On an individual scale, it seems a more extensive dental hygiene regimen could really help Americans with or without insurance.
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About Jason (Frugal Dad)Jason founded FrugalDad.com in 2007, back when being frugal was still unpopular. My Google Profile+
parts per million of atmospheric carbon compatible with a familiar, sustainable planet Earth