By Ralph Fuccillo
In recent months, oral health has been getting considerable attention from major news outlets like ABC News, The New York Times, and the PBS Frontline program. The emphasis of this coverage-- the inability of young Medicaid patients to get dental care, the rise in preschoolers with cavities, and the lack of dental coverage sending patients to the ER illustrates how far we still have to go to eradicate a very preventable disease.
Too many still think oral diseases are related to something not done, actions not taken. The truth is dental disease is a chronic, infectious illness. It is caused by bacteria and other factors. It is preventable. Working together, we can create a shared understanding of this disease among those who provide care, those who write health policies, those who finance care, and those who teach health education and prevention.
As the recent news coverage has made clear, there is a pressing need to erase disparities in access to care to improve the oral health of our nation. The good news is that people are working together to do this -- individually and collectively, in public and private partnerships, in communities, companies, and philanthropies, in health centers and dental offices, across states, and at the highest levels in government.
When communities work together, powerful change can happen. In 2007, Maryland suffered the very public death of a 12 year-old child to a dental infection that spread to his brain. This tragedy spurred a level of action in Maryland and around the country that the oral health community had not seen previously. Thanks to the efforts of many in government and the community, the state of Maryland is now a national model of how communities can work together to ensure everyone has access to dental care. Stakeholders in Maryland have come together and launched a $1.2 million oral health public service campaign to educate the community, and just recently Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley signed SB bills authorizing the Maryland State Department of Education to oral health literacy a component of school health education.
Maryland is just one example. There is important progress going on in many sectors.
Beginning in 2009, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reactivated a cross-agency focus on oral health and requested that the Institute of Medicine study the state of oral health. The resulting reports confirmed what many believed: the systems that impact oral health in America are broken. One-third of the population lives in areas where they can’t get dental care due either due to the scarcity of providers or a lack of coverage.
The new U.S. National Oral Health Alliance is using a model of collaboration across stakeholders to elevate oral health to the top of the nation’s health agenda --where it belongs. The Alliance is succeeding because people want to work together. Its national leadership gatherings (Colloquia) have stimulated respectful and thoughtful conversations, leading to unified messages on priority issues. The active participation of so many committed individuals working from a position of common ground offers hope that we will soon have a unified national strategy to improve oral health.
The DentaQuest Foundation, through its Oral Health 2014 Initiative, is supporting a complementary collaborative approach in 20 states. Local leaders of the Oral health 2014 Initiative are bringing their communities together and creating new oral health champions. These champions are aligning actions in Arizona, North Dakota, Florida, Maryland, California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Alabama, the District of Columbia, Maine, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Oregon, Virginia, South Carolina and West Virginia with oral health priorities nationwide.
It’s the ripple-effects of these initiatives that are critical. People are coming together with common goals -- creating conditions where individuals and groups with different perspectives feel comfortable working together. Together, they are changing how people respond to a preventable disease.
Ralph Fuccillo is the President of the DentaQuest Foundation.