Dentists are on the front line for oral and overall health

By: Dr. Keith Libou, Chief Clinical Officer, Delta Dental of New Jersey and Connecticut

There has been a lot of discussion lately regarding the relationship between gum disease and several serious medical conditions. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) recently released a report highlighting this link and underscoring how important oral health is to overall health. From diagnosing and treating oral problems to recognizing the presence of other medical conditions, it is increasingly understood that dentists play a crucial role in a patient's overall health. In fact, dentists are often on the front lines when it comes to recognizing several potential health issues for a patient, including hypertension, oral cancer, and Type II diabetes. This is key not only to help patients improve their overall health but also to enable dentists to provide care safely and avoid medical complications during or after treatment.

Currently, nearly half of adults in the United States suffer from hypertension. On one hand, knowing if a patient suffers from high blood pressure is crucial knowledge to safely perform procedures that require using anesthetics. On the other, hypertension can also be a symptom of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which is a potentially life-threatening condition where people stop breathing while they sleep due to a small or blocked airway at the back of their throat. Recognizing the presence of hypertension, when combined with other potential risk factors for sleep apnea, can be a critical finding by dentists which may indicate that a referral to a sleep medicine physician is necessary.

Similarly, oral cancer accounts for roughly 3% of all cancers diagnosed annually in the United States. Oral cancers often have a high mortality rate, primarily because they are often diagnosed at an advanced stage where treatment may not be as effective. When an oral cancer lesion is identified early, it allows patients to receive treatment sooner than may otherwise have occurred, potentially improving their prognosis. It is routine for dentists to look for suspicious lesions in the mouth that can be easily overlooked for months by an individual, speeding up the time to diagnosis and treatment.

Another serious health problem that dentists can help identify is undiagnosed Type II Diabetes. The presence of undiagnosed diabetes not only poses a major health problem to patients but can also have a significant impact on dental treatment decisions. For example, patients with untreated Type II Diabetes may have delayed wound healing, which is important to recognize to avoid post-operative infections and complications.

Hypertension, oral cancer, and Type II diabetes are only a few systemic health conditions that exemplify the interconnectedness of oral and overall health. To support the ability of dentists to play their pivotal role in guaranteeing the best oral and overall health outcomes for patients, Delta Dental continues to lead the national dialogue toward an inclusive healthcare conversation. And it isn't just talk; Delta Dental lives out this commitment in our everyday work. Recently, Delta Dental successfully submitted a code request to the American Dental Association’s Code Maintenance Committee for the creation of a new procedure code for HbA1c testing. High levels of HbA1c in the blood are a measure of prediabetes and diabetes. The code was approved and now HbA1c testing can play an important role in helping dentists identify unrecognized diabetic or pre-diabetic patients sooner than otherwise may have occurred. Delta Dental of New Jersey and Connecticut successfully advocated to allow dentists to perform these tests and are now at the front lines of identifying undiagnosed diabetes and helping those patients receive a definitive medical diagnosis and needed treatment from their physician.

Oral health is inextricably linked to overall health and going to the dentist is crucial to being healthy. A dentist’s ability to provide safe, effective dental care while also recognizing potentially serious medical conditions earlier is a critical part of helping all of us lead our most healthy life.