How to save billions on healthcare: Visit the dentist

It’s as simple as that. By creating programs that encourage people to visit their dentist regularly for preventive care, we could save billions of dollars in healthcare costs each year. Because it’s a biological truth: the health of your mouth affects the health of your entire body.

Dental problems, including gum disease, have been linked to numerous other health conditions including diabetes, heart disease and even increased risk for lung cancer.

Rising Cost of Health Care

We’ve all heard reports or have firsthand knowledge of the rising cost of healthcare in the U.S.  But did you know that in 2014, more than one in every six dollars in the country went to healthcare? That’s three trillion dollars in total. Or that in 2015, the average healthcare costs for a family of four exceeded $24,000? Employers on average cover 57% of healthcare costs, but that still leaves the average employee paying an astounding $14,000 per year.2

These staggering numbers represent the scale of the healthcare crisis that’s gripping our country. But, there may be some good news in all this gloom. Two recent studies reveal how billions could be saved every year simply by promoting dental care.

It’s All Connected

The human body is a complex system where everything is interconnected. It’s no wonder then that pathogens and toxins which affect the mouth can affect the health of the rest of the body. There’s already an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence showing the connections between oral health and a host of problems including diabetes, heart disease, respiratory issues, low birth weight babies.

Furthermore, emerging science suggests further implications for increased risk to everything from cancer to Alzheimer’s. The bottom line is when dental health worsens, medical health worsens and costs escalate.

University of Maryland Study

Recently a professor at the University of Maryland studied costs and benefits of expanding oral health care.  She found numerous ways in which routine dental care could eliminate the need for much more expensive healthcare treatment down the road.  Her research found the following:

  • If 60% of diabetics were able to manage their gum disease better, savings could equal about $39 billion per year, or about $1,845 per diabetic individual. 3
  • If 40% of pregnant women received better dental care savings would be about $7 billion, or nearly $1,050 per pregnancy.4
  • If 50% of dental-related emergency room visits were handled in a community setting savings could total around $826 million, or $385 per one of these visits. 5

(Figures are based on the 2014 population/2014 dollar.)

Analysis of Insurance Records

A second study in 2014 looked at systemic diseases like diabetes and lung disease.  By analyzing 330,000 insurance records they found a correlation between dental treatment and healthcare costs.  When patients with systemic diseases underwent treatment for periodontal disease, both their medical costs and their hospital stays decreased.  Annual savings were as high as $5,681 per person, while hospital stays dropped as much as 39%.6  

The total is approximately $74 billion in savings across the population of those with diabetes, stroke and CAD, if just 60% of these individuals received better oral care.

Here’s how those numbers break down:

  • Diabetes: The biggest declines in hospitalization were associated with patients who have diabetes.  It was shown that controlling periodontal involvement could save up to $39 billion annually in health care costs. 7
  • Pregnancy: Poor oral health is associated with low birth weight, preterm birth, preeclampsia and gestational diabetes.  The study found decrease of $2433 per pregnancy when mothers received periodontal treatment.8 That’s about $7 billion.
  • Lung disease: Because the oral pathway retains respiratory pathogens, oral hygiene is a cost-effective therapy for patients with ventilator-associated pneumonia (VAP).  When clinical staff in one intensive care unit administered an oral care treatment costing $3 per patient, they saw VAP cases- which can cost $10,000 to $40,000 each to treatment- decreased by 46%. 9
  • Access to dental care can also have other cost savings like fewer people seeking emergency room treatment for toothaches and early detection of oral cancer.

Putting It Into Action

The Dental Trade Alliance (DTA) has several suggestions that they believe will create these savings.

  • Insurance companies could offer dental health care at its core not as an optional rider.
  • Policy makers could mandate dental coverage for everyone.
  • Businesses can design dental wellness programs.
  • Physicians can actively refer patients to dentists.
  • Pediatricians and primary care physicians can incorporate basic dental treatments- such as fluoride varnishes and sealants- into annual checkups.

There’s a proven link between oral wellness and overall health.  And we all know ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’.  So let’s invest in those preventative measures like routine dental care and periodontal treatment so we can save billions and make Americans healthier.

References

1 “National Health Expenditure Data,” Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, www.cms.gov.
2 Christopher S. Girod, Scott A. Weltz and Susan K. Hart, “2015 Milliman Medical Index,” May 19, 2015, www.milliman.com/mmi.
3 Uma Kelekar, Ph.D., “Economic Costs of Oral Care in the United States in 2014,” 2015.
4 Uma Kelekar, Ph.D., “Economic Costs of Oral Care.”
5 Uma Kelekar, Ph.D., “Economic Costs of Oral Care.”
6 Marjorie K. Jeffcoat, Robert L. Jeffcoat, Patricia A. Gladowski, James B. Bramson, Jerome J. Blum, “Impact of Periodontal Therapy on General Health: Evidence From Insurance Data for Five Systemic Conditions,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Vol. 47, No. 2, August 2014, 166-174 .
7 Jeffcoat, et al., “Impact of Periodontal Therapy on General Health,” 166-174.
8 Jeffcoat, et al., “Impact of Periodontal Therapy on General Health,” 166-174.
9 Carrie Sona, Jeanne Zack, Marilyn E. Schallom, Maryellen McSweeney, Kathleen M. McMullen, James Thomas, “The Impact of a Simple, Low-Cost Oral Care Protocol on Ventilator-Associated Pneumonia Rates in a Surgical Intensive Care Unit,” Journal of Intensive Care Medicine, Vol. 24, No. 1, Jan-Feb 2009, 54-62.

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