Why are dentistry and oral health care practices seemingly easy to question?
The topic of evidence in dentistry and oral health care has been in the news a lot recently, with articles like this column in the New York Times by a professor of pediatrics.
In his column, Aaron Carroll discusses the differences he sees between his own and his wife’s dental journeys, as well as what little rigorous research has been done to support certain generally recommended dental practices.
What is interesting is that articles like this one and the popular flossing article from the Associated Press, among others, imply that recommendations made by dentists are based solely on limited or weak evidence – or worse, based simply on what the dentist will get paid for by an insurance company.
They also leave readers feeling that plaque removal and cavity prevention/treatment are the only elements necessary to address for good oral health.
Ultimately, Carroll suggests in his column that while lack of evidence doesn’t mean oral health prevention efforts don’t work, we should invest in research to ensure that those things we do are evidence-based.
For those of us in the business of improving oral health, we couldn’t agree more with that conclusion. But let’s take a closer look at some of the points that may have gone overlooked by recent press coverage.
We know that evidence something works for populations doesn’t directly translate into solutions for a specific individual – that is in fact why Carroll and his wife have such dramatically different dental journeys.
Carroll notes he has had just one filling in his life and doesn’t religiously care for his mouth, while his wife has “more fillings than [he] can count” but is fastidious in her oral care routines.
This underscores two important points:
1. Every person is different. Individualizing care is critical to improved oral health.
While evidence-based research informs standards of care, it is the dental team that must develop the best care plan for any given person’s situation. That is why DentaQuest invests in the development and adoption of evidence-based care protocols that focus on prevention, early intervention and disease management.
Our investments in disease management and risk assessment help provide dental teams with the knowledge and tools they need to best serve their patients.
For instance, across a five-year period, the DentaQuest Oral HealthCenter demonstrated that risk assessment and intense preventive efforts (including sealants and fluoride varnish) directly resulted in a reduction in the need for invasive surgical procedures.
Sealants are one of the most cost-effective strategies for protecting teeth, as noted in another recent New York Times column. This is because they provide a physical barrier against cavities. They can even be applied to teeth that are just starting to show signs of new cavities, and stop them from getting bigger.
The best time to seal a tooth is immediately after it erupts in the mouth, and so the DentaQuest Oral Health Center strives to set aside extra time at visits for children ages 6 and 11 since the permanent molars are usually erupting at that time. It is also why the DentaQuest Foundation collaborates so closely with school-based health alliances working to improve access to oral health care – and sealants – among children in grade school.
Additionally, with a patient population of over 10,000, the DentaQuest Oral Health Center works in collaboration with the DentaQuest Institute to refine strategies that make patients healthier. And when these best practices are implemented, they actively improve peoples’ health.
2. Prevention and oral health improvement do not take place solely in the dental chair.
Preventive dental visits provide an important opportunity for people to check in on their oral health habits and get evaluations for early signs of not just dental disease, but also chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension.
Most of us spend two hours a year in a dental office. And, if we are to reconsider the benefit of two annual preventive visits as Carroll suggests, some of us might end up spending even less time with a clinician. So what about the other 8,758 hours?
The differences in the oral health of Carroll and his wife are not because he brushes with an electric toothbrush every day or because she is doing something “wrong” in her routine. Oral health care is more than just brushing and flossing. In fact, it is about more than your teeth and gums.
To make an impact, we have to take a look at how we pay for oral health care, how our public policies enable it, and how our communities prioritize it, in addition to how we provide it.
Addressing just one of those will not improve oral health care on the larger scale or reduce health care costs, as Carroll aims to do with his recommendations. We know oral health care is indeed critical for overall health. This is why we at DentaQuest look far beyond the dental chair.
For example, as part of Oral Health 2020, the DentaQuest Foundation is investing in efforts to incorporate oral health into the primary education system. Oral health education, screenings, assisted referral, and delivery of preventive care through our schools provide equitable, reliable entry into long-term oral health care.
DentaQuest also champions efforts to include innovative financing models for dental in person-centered approaches to care enabled by the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Over the last decade, we’ve seen significant movement to transform our health care system into one that improves quality, lowers costs, and makes people healthier. In fact, on the medical side the Triple Aim is starting to be supported by alternative payment and care delivery models that are person-centered and focus on prevention.
Why did that happen? Because experts and advocates knew there had to be a better way forward for a healthier America.
The same is true for oral health. We are beginning to see that it is possible to live in a world where optimal oral health is the expectation, not the exception. We must continue to invest the same transformative energy into improving the oral health of all because you cannot have optimal overall health without optimal oral health.