Getting to the root of oral health

by Chrissy Chatham ([email protected]) 588 views 

The Delta Dental of Arkansas Foundation is on a mission to transform oral health.

Today, Arkansas is ranked 49th for our dental wellness. According to a 2021 WalletHub report, we claimed the lowest numbers in the nation of adolescents and adults who visited the dentist over the last year. But we secured the top spot for our consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages like sodas and juice. Across the state, there is a critical shortage of dentists and dental hygienists, exacerbating a lack of access to much-needed oral health care services, particularly among low-income and rural communities.

Together, these factors are causing a buildup of adverse effects—for residents and our economy.

During a recent Delta Dental of Arkansas Foundation board meeting, Dr. Joe Thompson, former state surgeon general and president and CEO of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, noted if we want to see a decline in our state’s oral health issues, we can’t simply treat these problems when they occur. We must stop them at the root.

Research consistently shows oral health prevention is cheaper and more effective in the long-term than treatment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) asserts semi-annual or annual dental checkups, which include regular teeth cleanings, significantly curb gum disease and decay. Studies suggest for every dollar spent on preventative dental care we can save $8 to $50 in restorative and emergency treatments—or even more for intensive medical interventions. Consistent dental appointments also help catch easier-to-fix problems, such as tooth erosion, before they can progress. In fact, public health data shows early treatment, such as dental sealants, can prevent 80% of cavities in children.

If left unaddressed, poor oral hygiene can take a toll on individuals—personally and professionally. The CDC reports 40% of working-age adults now have untreated tooth decay. This issue, as well as unplanned and emergency care for related oral health conditions, leads to losses of 34 million school hours and $45 billion in workplace productivity each year. At the same time, nearly a quarter of American adults, and 29% of those with lower incomes, say the appearance of their mouths and teeth affect their abilities to successfully interview for jobs.

Over the last 20 years, the Delta Dental of Arkansas Foundation has provided more than $25 million in funding for community-led education, prevention and treatment programs across the state. Last year alone, we contributed almost $2 million to state organizations to help enhance the oral health of more than 850,000 Arkansans.

Moving forward, we believe we can make an even bigger impact. But we need Arkansans’ help.

Along with traditional funding opportunities, such as Super Smiles at Schools, we intend to award up to $1.2 million in strategic initiative grants to partners who want to join us in our new mission to transform oral health through collaboration, innovation, education and service.

We know from decades of experience that taking a bite out of oral health disease and related issues in Arkansas will require bold solutions. That’s why our foundation is revamping our focus and calling on organizations, from nonprofits to local school districts, to step up with the ideas and the determination needed to drive lasting change. Submit a letter of interest to [email protected].

Editor’s note: Chrissy Chatham is the executive director of the Delta Dental of Arkansas Foundation. The opinions expressed are those of the author.