Improving health literacy
By: Joseph Dill, DDS, Head of Dental Science, Delta Dental Institute and Chief Dental Officer, Delta Dental Plans Association
We know that maintaining a healthy lifestyle leads to better health and quality of life. The list of everyday activities with which we’re all familiar — eating a balanced diet, drinking plenty of water, exercising routinely — can have a lasting impact on health. But I believe this list is incomplete. What doesn’t get quite as much attention as things like diet and exercise, but is just as important to achieving better health, is taking care of our oral health. Activities such as brushing and flossing regularly, and seeing the dentist routinely, can have a positive impact on many systemic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, and diabetes.
And while the importance of oral health is obvious to me after 40 years working in the oral health space, including as a practicing dentist, it’s gratifying to know that most adults also understand the influence of oral health habits on overall health, with 92% believing their oral health is very or extremely important to their overall health.
We believe that bringing better health to more people means focusing on oral health as being critical to overall, whole-person health. I see three opportunities for us, as health professionals and decision-makers, to work together to improve Americans’ oral and overall health: improving health literacy, exploring new care pathways, and building a health-care workforce that more closely reflects the diversity of the communities we serve.
Improving health literacy
Health literacy ensures people can make informed decisions about their health, from understanding instructions following an appointment to comprehending insurance coverage. But there are major gaps in health literacy, especially among low-income, aging, and rural populations, which puts them at a disadvantage when making health-care decisions. We must address these gaps, especially in oral health care, to enhance patient-provider communication and improve health outcomes.
One opportunity to help address disparities in oral health literacy is the recent re-introduction in Congress of the Oral Health Literacy and Awareness Act (S.403, H.R.994). This act would authorize a public education campaign to increase oral health literacy, so that more Americans would have access to the tools they need to make informed health-care decisions. We support this bipartisan, bicameral legislation and encourage others to join us in calling on policymakers to pass it.
Exploring new care pathways
Bringing better health to more people means providers communicating effectively on behalf of their patients. Research sponsored by Delta Dental recently found that dental and medical professionals working together in integrated practices increases information sharing and collaboration, which advances patient-centered care. These medical-dental integration models help close gaps in care by decreasing the number of facilities, appointments, or providers a patient must interact with. By improving interprofessional communication, providers can better identify disease risks and underlying conditions, and are more equipped to proactively help patients manage diseases that impact overall health.
Building the health-care workforce of the future
As the country continues to face provider shortages, we are keenly focused on supporting efforts to expand the health-care workforce while at the same time making it more diverse. Research finds that racial and ethnic diversity among health professionals is linked to improved access to care, greater patient choice and satisfaction, and better patient-provider communication, particularly for those from historically underrepresented groups.
Last year, Delta Dental invested over $20 million toward education and workforce development initiatives to shape the next generation of the oral health workforce, funding scholarships and grants at colleges and dental schools across the nation, including at historically Black and Hispanic universities. And our Driving Greater Diversity in the Oral Health Workforce campaign supports initiatives focused on increasing the number of oral health professionals from historically underrepresented groups. As part of the campaign, Delta Dental established the first, national Oral Health Diversity Fund, which invests in innovative programs that inspire youth to pursue careers in oral health.
As the nation’s oral health leader, its largest dental insurer, and its largest oral health philanthropist, we believe everyone deserves a healthy smile. Working together, we can create lasting change by advancing better health through oral health.
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