American Indians Face Significant Barriers to Oral Health

By JoLou Trujillo-Ottino, VP, Business Development, Delta Dental of New Mexico

Social determinants of health – "the economic and social conditions that influence the health of people and communities" – play a large role in our overall well-being. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation estimates that non-medical factors drive as much as 80 percent of all health outcomes. This is important context for understanding and addressing health disparities. In New Mexico, which is home to 23 tribes and the third-highest concentration of Native Americans in the country, our team's focus is on serving our region's Native American Tribal, Pueblo, and Navajo communities, who have historically faced significant barriers to oral health access and have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19.

Native Americans face pronounced oral health challenges. A 2014 Indian Health Service (IHS) survey found that the prevalence of tooth decay among American Indian/Alaska Native children aged two to five years was nearly three times the U.S. average. Another IHS survey showed that American Indian/Alaska Native adult dental patients are more likely than the general U.S. population to have severe periodontal disease, to have missing teeth, and to report poor oral health. Additionally, as of 2014, more than 2.4 million Native Americans nationwide live in counties with dental care shortage areas.                                        

COVID-19 has brought these health disparities into even sharper focus, as the virus has hit Native American communities particularly hard. Native Americans across the country have contracted COVID-19 at a 3.5 times higher rate than Caucasians. Here in New Mexico, the age-adjusted COVID mortality rate among Native Americans is 23 times higher than that of Caucasians. Social determinants of health play a role: Native Americans in some New Mexico counties, for example, may have to drive over 95 miles for essential needs and lack running water or electricity. Without such resources, COVID-19 prevention and care is very difficult.

Delta Dental of New Mexico is committed to addressing health disparities in our region's Native American Tribal, Pueblo, and Navajo communities, and we are proud of our community investment work during the COVID-19 crisis. Most recently, Delta Dental of New Mexico supported the Community Pantry, a food pantry in Gallup, New Mexico, that serves two of the state's poorest counties. Delta Dental of New Mexico's grant allowed Community Pantry to pay temporary workers and provide healthy food to families struggling with the dual impact of COVID-19 and economic difficulties. Additionally, we supported the Native-led Notah Begay III (NB3) Foundation's COVID-19 Response Fund, a direct action fund providing food, water, and educational resources to the tribes, Pueblos, and Native American communities of New Mexico and the Navajo Nation. Delta Dental of New Mexico also donated to the Pueblo Relief Fund, administered by the All Pueblo Council of Governors and the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center to meet the most critical needs of the 20 Pueblo Nations during COVID-19. This contribution provided tribal members with critical supplies, like food, disinfecting supplies, and personal protective equipment, that they lack the financial reserves to obtain during the current recession.   

Our rich history of community impact began long before the pandemic. Delta Dental of New Mexico has partnered and continues to partner with the University of New Mexico Division of Dental Hygiene to support school-based dental clinics in Native American communities as well as additional underserved communities in the state.  

Delta Dental of New Mexico is committed to the long-term health of our area's Native American Tribal, Pueblo, and Navajo communities, both now during the pandemic and after it is over. By investing in social determinants of health, we support holistic solutions that impact the overall health, and oral health, of New Mexico’s Native American communities. Read more about our programs at: