CHWs Can Improve Oral Health Disparities

People who work with people’s teeth understand what kind of view that provides to the whole body. They see first hand how the mouth can reflect problems around the body and how problems with the mouth can affect the rest of the body. Poor dental health can correlate to chronic conditions ranging from heart disease to diabetes to brain degeneration—and more.

Almost all Americans understand this first-hand. Over 90% have at least one tooth that’s been treated for decay or needs to be. About a quarter of U.S. adults between 20 and 64 need a filling. Cavities are the most common chronic childhood infectious disease. Periodontal disease is also tragically undertreated in the States and affects about half of us. The problem there is that people with gum disease are 2 to 3 times more likely to have cardiovascular problems.

Oral Health Disparities

Access to health care and proper education helps address this gap, but there are stark disparities in the oral health of men, women, and children. These oral health disparities can have serious consequences, which we explore in depth in the CHWTraining course Oral Health Disparities.

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Some of the statistics from our course are unsettling.

“Blacks, non-Hispanics, and Mexican Americans aged 35–44 years experience untreated tooth decay nearly twice as much as white, non-Hispanics,” according to the CDC. Latino children have higher rates of tooth decay, rampant decay, and treatment need, compared to non-Latino white children.

Image: Pew Charitable Trusts

Education is widely lacking. I, for one, have never once in my life been told that women have unique oral health concerns, despite regular checkups and experience with recurring canker sores and inflamed gums. Are most pregnant women told they are far more likely to have gum disease or loose teeth or that morning sickness is a problem for teeth? I’m guessing not.

The trouble is that too few of the people in charge see it that way. Starting from the top with health policy all the way down to children who haven’t learned to brush regularly, too many people are tuned out to the connection between oral and overall health.

Many people can’t afford dental insurance or expensive electronic toothbrushes or a house where the water is fluoridated, especially in underserved rural and urban areas. Still, there isn’t much care coordination and patient navigation to support people.

Fortunately, this trend is reversable because relatively simple prevention goes a long way with oral and overall health.

CHWs Can Reverse Oral Health Disparities

Communities and health systems need to step up oral health by providing better access to dentists and education. Community health workers (CHWs), promotores de salud, and other lay educators are in a perfect position to help.

States and health systems should work to include oral health education as a part of CHW training. They can help people navigate such barriers as poverty, language, geography, and even transportation. And they can do it where people live, not necessarily in a clinical setting. This is a relatively low-cost way to engage families but can have a tremendous impact a person’s health, from childhood through the rest of their life.

Interested in educating your team in oral health disparities? Contact us to learn how.