A consistent focus on the importance of increasing equitable access to oral health care drove progress and innovation forward this year — from the policy debate surrounding Medicare expansion to include dental benefits to innovations such as teledentistry and value-based care models. And while this work is far from done, we have helped lay the foundation for meaningful change in 2022 and beyond.
DentaQuest’s commitment to the mission of improving the oral health of all guides everything we do. The pandemic has reinforced what we already knew: in order to do that — to truly improve health outcomes for all — we need to address the systemic inequities that exist in our health care system. That includes breaking down barriers that keep people from accessing the care they need, connecting underserved communities with resources, and investing in pathways for providers who reflect the communities they serve.
Here are four lessons we learned about the challenges of improving oral health care for all in 2021.
1. Access to Care is Essential to Equitable Care
- Cultural barriers persist when it comes to access to oral health care. We continued our efforts to bridge cultural divides in oral health with a cultural ambassador program, providing oral health education and connecting communities with oral care and services.
- Teledentistry continues to be one of the best solutions to mitigating the gap in access to oral health care services. Patients who come from underserved communities often experience structural barriers to traditional oral health care due to factors including lack of paid time off, transportation or a sufficient number of providers within a reasonable distance. In fact, three in four patients have experienced an obstacle in oral health care, and 56 million Americans live in an area with a shortage of dental professionals.
- Providers have found ways to meet patients where they’re at. In states across the country, mobile dentistry has become an innovative way to serve hard-to-reach populations.
2. Investment in Workforce Pathways is Critical for the Future
- As we look toward the future of dentistry, it’s clear that there is not nearly enough diversity in our field and there needs to be significant investments in diversifying the pathways to enter the dental workforce. Research shows that in 2020, 70.2% of dentists were white, with Black and Hispanic dentists being significantly underrepresented in comparison to the U.S. population. As Steve Pollock, DentaQuest president and CEO said, “Increasing access in the field helps those who are underrepresented in the industry have inclusive space to explore dentistry as a profession. And with a more diverse provider pool, we’re hopeful to see a more diverse patient population in the future.”
- DentaQuest worked with various organizations to support advancing workforce pathways, including contributing to initiatives dedicated to increasing diversity in the dental profession and creating opportunities for students of color. In a joint op-ed with the Hispanic Dental Association, we highlighted the disparities in care among Hispanic seniors in particular, along with solutions, including increasing Hispanic representation in the dental field. Also, a conversation with members of the Society of American Indian Dentists discussed the challenges the Native population faces in oral health and how some providers’ Native heritage has influenced their own dental careers.
3. Oral Health is Overall Health and Medical-Dental Integration is Key
- This year, growing research reinforced the connections between oral health and overall health and emphasized the importance of addressing chronic conditions that can have a negative impact on an individual’s oral health — such as diabetes and heart disease. DentaQuest’s chronic conditions outreach program is just one example of efforts to improve the health of at-risk members due to chronic conditions.
- With the rise in teen vaping, educating young people about the risks to their oral and overall health is essential. DentaQuest partnered with CATCH My Breath, a national nicotine and vaping-prevention program, to provide its anti-vaping curriculum to schools and communities across the country, with a focus on the effects of vaping on oral health.
- And this year, we added the importance of oral health to the national conversation focused on Black maternal health. Data shows poor oral health during pregnancy may increase the risk of poor birth outcomes, such as low birth weight or prematurity. Along with highlighting stories to generate awareness, DentaQuest joined a diverse group of business and health leaders as the sole oral health sponsor of the national Black Maternal Health Conference. We proudly added our voice to the discussions that elevate maternal health and celebrate Black women.
4. Progress Extends into 2022
- DentaQuest employees lauded our company’s commitment to ensuring an innovative, collaborative, impactful and welcoming workplace, earning it recognition as a Great Place to Work-Certified™ company in the financial services and insurance category by Great Place to Work®. Additionally, DentaQuest employees dedicated their time to supporting a variety of local organizations during DentaQuest Mission Month, assembling 38,000 oral health kits and writing 1,200 thank you cards to veterans and first responders.
- This fall, we announced our plan to combine with Sun Life U.S., marking an important next step in our company’s long-term transformation that will enhance and broaden our existing capabilities.
With the challenges and hardships of 2021 behind us and the groundwork for meaningful change in motion, we’re prepared and excited to break down barriers in 2022.