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Confronting Health Inequities in a COVID-19 World

Myechia Minter-Jordan, MD, MBA
President and CEO
DentaQuest Partnership for Oral Health Advancement and Catalyst Institute, Inc.

Health equity has been a national issue for years, but deep-rooted inequities have been revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus is hitting our underserved communities and most vulnerable populations especially hard, highlighting the impact of the social determinants of health, access to care, and trust in our health care system. In this case, health equity is imperative because we cannot reduce our collective exposure to the virus without it.

Impact of COVID-19 on High-Risk Communities  

The pandemic has affected everyone in some way. Lives have been changed. In Massachusetts, home to DentaQuest’s headquarters, more than 80,000 coronavirus cases have been recorded to date. And this number is growing  with a greater risk among people of color and immigrant populations, according to the Boston Mayor’s COVID-19 Health Inequities Task Force, a group I’m proud to be a part of. 

Through our work on the Task Force, we’re learning that these populations  especially black Americans  are two times more likely to live in areas impacted by COVID-19 and almost 40% are faced with potential reductions in hours and pay. this population also encounters barriers such as pre-existing health conditions and lower access to testing and treatments. And we’re seeing similar trends across the country. Because of pre-existing and long-standing structural and economic barriers, communities of color have subsequently become hotspots for the virus.  

The fact is that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, racial disparities persisted in access to health care, including oral health care. For example, compared to non-Hispanic white Americans, ethnic-minority groups are twice as likely to live without health insurance, black Americans are 68% more likely to have unmet dental needs, and Latino adults are 52% more likely to have difficulty doing their jobs due to poor oral health.  

Data is integral to informing local and state government decisions about resource allocation and ensuring immediate deployment to the most affected communities. It also provides guidance about additional measures needed to ensure these resources make a meaningful impact. Data confirms what many of us presumed: underserved communities have been disproportionally affected by COVID-19 and there’s a deep correlation between health and economic disparities. Affordability of care is a major issue for vulnerable populations: those living in poverty are 10.6 times more likely to forgo needed medical care due to cost and 102 times more likely to have difficulty doing their jobs because of oral health conditions.  

We need to take a more holistic approach to improve health outcomes for vulnerable populations. Public health infrastructure should play a critical role, but we need to take a whole-person care approach, which considers ethnic and cultural differences, language barriers, and the need for targeted resources and economic opportunities. 

Giving a Voice to Local Communities 

My experience on the Task Force has shown me once again the importance of collaboration and partnership between communities and government. We make a bigger impact when we bring our unique perspectives together to confront an issue. 

At the DentaQuest Partnership for Oral Health Advancement, we’re focused on creating meaningful alliances with community-based organizations to continue caring for underserved communities during and beyond the pandemic. We are laser-focused on lowering barriers in communities that traditionally don’t have access. One way to do this is to facilitate the adoption of teledentistry, which also has the potential to drive new revenue models for safety net dental programs that are moving toward integrated, value-based care.  

One good example of that is our partnership with Community Care Cooperative (C3), a first-of-its-kind Medicaid Accountable Care Organization comprising 19 Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) in Massachusetts. Together we are developing a phased approach to reopening FQHC dental practices, leveraging teledentistry to insure safe, effective, and financially sustainable oral care. As part of this effort, the DentaQuest Partnership will provide health centers with ongoing training and data evaluation and a $200,000 grant to C3 to add teledentistry to its telehealth offerings. FQHCs serve as our nations’ oral health care safety net, so as states begin to reopen, it’s crucial that we continue investing in them as we strive for more equitable health.  

Celebrate Health Equity Heroes with DentaQuest Awards 

During these challenging times, it’s especially important to recognize those who are helping to remediate disparities in health amid COVID-19. At DentaQuest, we know that we cannot achieve improved oral health for all without community allies and health champions.  

So, let’s celebrate those who are creating change in our communities together!  

This year, our annual DentaQuest Health Equity Heroes Program will honor 12 exceptional changemakers  from community organizers to health leaders and dental care teams to policymakers  who are doing just that: paving a path to equitable oral health care for underserved and vulnerable populations and advancing the principles of Preventistry on a local and national level.  

Do you know an unsung hero deserving of recognition? Nominate your Health Equity Hero today.