Monday, May 20, 2013

Oral Health Literacy and Health Equity

By Ralph Fuccillo, DentaQuest Chief Mission Officer

Nearly nine out of ten U.S. adults find it hard to use the health information they get from their dentist or doctors’ office, in the media and even in their communities.1
That is a real problem.

Limited health literacy leads people to incorrect conclusions about helpful oral health actions -- like community water fluoridation, eating a healthy diet, brushing and flossing every day, even getting regular preventive dental care visits. Limited oral health literacy is a contributor to the growing number of very young children (age 1-5) with Early Childhood Caries – aggressive dental disease –in need of repair (root canals and crowns) in operating rooms. Health literacy is something we all need to pay more attention to – as consumers, care providers, and public health advocates.

I am pleased to see that oral health literacy is gaining importance as a public health priority. Last year, I had the honor of joining a number of key national oral health leaders at the Institute of Medicine (IOM)’s Roundtable on Health Literacy. Oral health is now included on the IOM Health LiteracyRoundtable through the participation of the California Dental Association. The oral health literacy roundtable explored ways to bring oral health literacy research into oral health practice, and to do this in a way that everyone can understand. As a speaker, I had four key messages:
  • The mouth is part of the body
  • Cavities and gum disease are the result of a bacterial infection in the mouth
  • Dental disease is preventable
  • Oral health literacy is everybody’s business

As part of my presentation, I also spoke about my personal experience volunteering at a Mission of Mercy free clinic in rural Virginia. It is impossible to overstate the desperation and gratitude that I saw. I left with a different perspective on our current care delivery system. People are being left behind. People don’t have the information they need to be healthy.  

This experience motivated me to become involved in the establishment of the US National Oral Health Alliance and the DentaQuest Foundation’s multi-year Oral Health 2014 initiative. Both work to improve oral health literacy, and ultimately, the oral health of all.

In June 2012, the U.S. National Oral Health Alliance hosted a national learning event focused on Oral Health Literacy as a Pathway to Health Equity. Participants worked to develop common ground messages about oral health literacy that we can all work to achieve. I share them below because they are simple, yet so important. I hope you will consider using them in your work and your lives.
  • Everyone has a stake in oral health literacy.
  • Health literacy is based on genuine compassion and care. We all need a sense of empathy to meet people where they are, to listen to, learn from, and respect one another
  • Prevention is the starting point for health.
  • We need to use simple, clear and consistent educational messages if we are to motivate action to improve their oral health. It is important to be patient-centered and respectful of cultures, languages and customs.
1.     Kutner M, Greenberg E, Jin Y, Paulsen C. The Health Literacy of America’s Adults: Results from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NCES 2006-483). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics; 2006.