New Delta Dental Institute Poll Highlights Importance of Improving Oral Health Literacy

By Dr. Joseph Dill, Chief Dental Officer for the Delta Dental Institute and Vivian Vasallo, Executive Director of the Delta Dental Institute    


Health literacy plays a critical role in driving health outcomes. New survey results from the Delta Dental Institute show that a majority of Americans feel like they are getting oral health information and dental benefits information in a way that they can easily understand—a positive indicator for the state of oral health literacy. However, the survey also illuminates troubling gaps that are critical to address.

The World Health Organization defines health literacy as "the ability of individuals to gain access to, understand and use information in ways which promote and maintain good health." The Delta Dental Institute published a white paper earlier this year that applied this concept to oral health and examined how dental health professionals, employers, and other stakeholders can help Americans make more informed decisions. Research shows that Americans recognize the connection between oral health and overall health, but discrepancies in outcomes remain due in part to low levels of oral health literacy.     

The new survey results from the Delta Dental Institute provide an updated look at Americans' oral health literacy. While suggesting that Americans feel more comfortable digesting general oral health information from their dentist compared to the more technical terminology of dental benefits information, the findings are generally encouraging. However, both dental insurers and dentists should make efforts to tackle the gaps in understanding that currently exist.

61 percent of Americans agree that their dental insurer provides dental benefits information in a way they can easily understand—a relatively positive number. There are disparities, however; people making less than $30,000 per year, older than 65, or living in rural areas are less likely to say they can easily comprehend their dental benefits information.  

Furthermore, 81 percent of Americans agree that their dentist provides oral health information in a way they can easily understand. Disparities exist here too: only 65 percent of people making under $30,000 per year feel that their dentist provides oral health information in a way they can easily understand, while 88 percent of people making above $125,000 per year do. There are also differences based on geography: 79 percent of people living in rural communities agree that their dentist provides oral health information in a way they can easily understand, compared to 83 percent of those living in urban communities.                                                             

While the overall findings are encouraging, indicating that most Americans feel generally positive about their ability to understand health information, these gaps for low-income, aging, and rural communities are important to address. These disparities underscore the importance and relevance of our white paper's recommendations for improving Americans' oral health literacy. First, dental professionals and insurers should provide plain-language clinical and dental insurance educational information to all patients to reinforce messages conveyed verbally. Second, oral health literacy training for dental providers and staff members is critical, as dental practices can help patients' understanding by using clear, appropriate, and repetitive messages. Third, adapting after-visit summaries for use in dentistry holds promise. After-visit summaries can improve doctor-patient mutual understanding of patients' existing health, oral conditions, treatment needs, health literacy, and proposed program of treatment. Finally, improving capacity for integrating dental practices with medical practices is important; oral health is health, and patients are best served by providers treating oral health holistically.

Health literacy allows patients to make informed decisions about their oral and overall health care, which leads to better health outcomes. Our goal is for all Americans, across all demographics, to feel confident in their understanding of how to keep their smiles healthy. Until then, however, all stakeholders, including dental health professionals, insurers, health funders, employers, and others, must work to improve oral health literacy through a research-based, data-driven reframing. The country's oral health depends on it.