Commentary: Lack of dental health services in Utah costs individuals and the economy

Unmet dental needs affect a person’s health and their ability to find a job.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A young patient fills one of 60 chairs at the University of Utah dental school on Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, as part of the American Dental Association's "Give Kids a Smile" program, that gives no-cost care to thousands of kids nationwide.

When you think about Utah’s post-pandemic recovery, oral health might not be top of mind. But can you imagine interviewing for a job with broken or missing teeth? What if wearing a mask was a relief because you felt embarrassed to show your teeth when you smile?

Too many of our fellow Utahns face these very dilemmas every day. According to state survey data from the American Dental Association, one in five Utah residents report that the appearance of their mouth affects their ability to interview for a job and a quarter of all Utahns report that the state of their mouth contributes to anxiety and embarrassment. Individuals with untreated dental disease often have a harder time getting hired for a job.

Utah’s unmet dental health care needs affect Utahns across the lifespan. They are not only costly to individuals but society as a whole. Millions of taxpayer dollars are spent every year on emergency room visits for non-emergency dental care needs, according to a recent report from the Utah Department of Health.

When Utahns cannot access dental care, it affects their ability to stay healthy, secure employment and improve their families’ economic success. Oral health may not be top of mind for many, but for the thousands of Utahns who lack affordable care, it is front and center. Oral health is an integral piece to Utah’s growth and success.

Utah is fortunate to have many dental professionals who generously donate their time and services to help those in need. While their services are a critical part of the solution, Utah faces challenges that donated and volunteer care alone cannot solve.

Over the last decade, Utah has cut key public investments to our dental care system, such as reducing dental benefits to low-income Utahns and virtually eliminating the state dental director position, which ensures efficient use of services across the state.

The pandemic has only heightened the impact of these disinvestments. Utah’s oral health problems have been exacerbated as fewer dentists have been able to offer free or low-cost care or charity events. We need sustainable solutions that meet the needs of Utah residents across the state.

Fortunately, Utah has the tools available right now to address these challenges, rebuild our system of care and ensure that all Utahns can access care. The Utah Oral Health Coalition, a statewide coalition of over thirty organizations including health care providers and practitioners, businesses, community organizations, professional training schools, professional dental and dental hygiene organizations, educators and leaders, have come together to find solutions, so we can improve access to dental care and reduce unmet oral health needs for Utahns. We recommend the following top policy solutions:

• Restore funding for a full-time state dental director and public oral health program, which provides critical statewide public health monitoring and evaluation.

• Fund statewide dental screening programs.

• Restore dental benefits for all Medicaid-eligible adults, building on the recent reinstated benefits for seniors and people with disabilities.

We urge our state leaders to prioritize these solutions and to join with our coalition to reduce oral health disparities across our state. Together we can help ensure that no Utahn is denied a job interview because of the appearance of his or her mouth, and that no Utah child misses school because of unnecessary tooth pain. Together we can ensure all Utahns can smile without shame or embarrassment.

Danyelle Evans

Laura Green

Danyelle Evans, RDH, Washington, Utah, and Laura Green, RDHM.Ed., Sandy, are co-chairs of the the Utah Oral Health Coalition, a statewide group leveraging private, public and non-profit partnerships to eliminate oral health disparities in Utah through education, prevention and access.

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