I don’t like to go to the dentist, but I know I’m not alone in that. In fact, I don’t know anyone who looks forward to a dentist visit. Fear and anxiety prevent millions of Americans from seeing the dentist and having regular checkups. However, there are other important factors that keep people from going to the dentist.
In Colorado, data show that 32% of Coloradans haven’t seen a dentist in the last year, and poor oral health is disproportionately experienced among communities of color. The former is largely due to lack of dental insurance, but the disproportionate impact on communities of color is additionally because of the lack of providers, poverty, insufficient education, and limited English proficiency in these communities.
Childhood oral disease has significant medical, financial, and even educational consequences. Children at an early age may have their learning impacted by poor oral health; a child cannot concentrate and learn if they are sick or in pain. In a study done by American Journal of Public Health, children with poor oral health are nearly three times more likely to miss school because of dental pain. These issues carry into adulthood, and the racial and ethnic disparities continue to be pronounced. People of color are more likely to suffer from untreated tooth decay and lose their teeth. Poor oral health is not only painful, but can cause health problems, such as a higher risk of diabetes, heart disease, and respiratory complications.
Although the number of Coloradans with dental insurance has increased in recent years, it’s important that all Coloradans have both dental insurance and access to quality dental care. Colorado is one of just a few states that provide dental benefits under Medicaid. When our state expanded Medicaid and added dental benefits for adults, it tripled the number of Coloradans (including children) eligible for Medicaid dental coverage. However, the number of dentists who accept Medicaid patients only increased by 17%, creating a shortage of participating providers.
Beyond insurance and access, Colorado can and should take important public health steps to promote good oral health. One of these is the fluoridation of our drinking water, which protects teeth from cavities and decay. Right now, 74% of Coloradans have access to fluoridated water, and lack of fluoridation may disproportionately affect low-income children and children of color, especially because fluoridated water may be the only preventative dental care some children receive. We’re proud to work with partners like Delta Dental, Oral Health Colorado, and many others, to implement policy changes that improve oral health.
I am probably never going to look forward to going to the dentist, but I am relieved to know I can, when I need to. And for every Coloradan we ensure has access to affordable, quality dental care, we’ll have one more healthy smile contributing to a person’s healthy life.