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Systemic Barriers and Oral Health Equity in North Carolina

There aren’t many people who really enjoy going to the dentist.

Who wants to have someone poking around in your mouth, drilling into your teeth, and telling you to floss more?

Reluctance to enter an uncomfortable setting is far from the only barrier keeping North Carolinians from going to the dentist. Hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians experience systemic barriers that keep them out of a dental chair.

The Foundation for Health Leadership & Innovation’s (FHLI) North Carolina Oral Health Collaborative (NCOHC) works to dismantle systemic barriers to oral health care, addressing social determinants of health to create a more equitable landscape for everyone in North Carolina.

Geographic Barriers

Where you live has a lot to do with how easy or hard it is to see a dentist. Five of North Carolina’s 100 counties are home to most of our state’s practicing dentists.

Did you know?

74 of North Carolina’s 100 counties are designated Dental Health Provider Shortage Areas (HPSAs).

So, if you are in Raleigh, you might have a choice between the dentist five minutes up the road and another one on the way to work, giving you the flexibility to fit oral care seamlessly into your schedule. But if you live in Tyrell County, you may have to plan an hour-long trip to access the closest dental office.

Income

Cavity fillings, tooth extractions, implants, and crowns can be expensive treatments, and hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians are uninsured. Without the means to access oral health care from childhood, low-income North Carolinians often don’t receive preventive treatment early on, leaving them at higher risk of negative outcomes later in life. Beyond oral health, this has far-reaching impacts that influence a cycle of poverty that is hard to escape.

Poor teeth, I knew, beget not just shame, but more poorness: people with bad teeth have a harder time getting jobs and other opportunities. People without jobs are poor. Poor people can’t access dentistry—and so goes the cycle.

Sarah Smarsh, “Poor Teeth”

Be sure to check out NCOHC’s Resource Center for more content, like the incredibly personal and compelling essay about poverty and oral care, “Poor Teeth,” by Sarah Smarsh.

Compounding Effects

These systemic barriers to oral health care don’t occur in a vacuum. They compound, making access harder and harder. Imagine the difficulty of seeing a dentist if you live in a rural community and must schedule an hour-long trip to access care. Now imagine how much harder that would be to fit into your schedule if you are working two or three jobs to make ends meet. What would you do if, on top of all that, the dentist doesn’t accept your Medicaid insurance, forcing you to budget time for a two- or three-hour trip?

On a positive note, North Carolina’s oral care Medicaid benefits are among the best in the country. Unfortunately, they are incredibly underutilized. 76% of North Carolina’s dentists are in private practice, and few accept Medicaid insurance, making it difficult to find an in-network provider.

Language Barriers

According to the Modern Language Association of America, nearly 900,000 North Carolinians speak a primary language other than English. Most of these individuals speak Spanish, but other primary languages include French, German, Chinese (including Mandarin), Vietnamese, Arabic, Korean, and more.

For non-native English speakers, and for those who may not speak English at all, understanding dental care, finding a dentist, scheduling appointments, and coordinating with insurance companies can be daunting tasks. Making it even more difficult is the fact that many dentists in North Carolina don’t have bilingual staff or translated paperwork.

For dentists, language barriers can pose issues regarding informed consent. Even with a translator present, ensuring that the patient truly understands a procedure can be a major concern for providers.

Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

Individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) have a higher chance of suffering from poor oral health for a variety of reasons. The IDD population often has a harder time finding transportation to and from a dentist, many are non-ambulatory, and physical ailments can inhibit good personal oral hygiene habits. In addition, most dentists don’t have training to provide services for those with special needs.

In the Community

NCOHC recently partnered with Campbell University public health students for a practicum experience in oral health. As part of the program, the students worked to incorporate oral health into Harnett County’s MedFest event, a program of Special Olympics North Carolina that provides medical services to Special Olympics participants.

Read more about the program in, “Building Oral Health Champions: Reflecting on a Semester with Campbell University Public Health Students” or watch our video spotlight on Campbell University.

These are just a few of the factors that impact the IDD community. For a more in-depth analysis, check out this 2018 study by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center on oral health care for adults with IDD.

Racial Disparities

Oral health outcomes and access to care differ widely along racial lines. Non-white North Carolinians are far more likely to have lower household incomes, and many live in “food deserts,” meaning they lack access to healthy foods. These factors affect oral health, as well as health in general.

According to the CDC, non-white Americans have higher rates of poor oral health, with the largest disparities occurring between 2-4 years old and 6-8 years old. Childhood tooth decay is a serious issue in minority communities, and it is an issue that continues to affect oral health and whole-body health throughout adulthood.

How Do We Address These Barriers and Achieve Oral Health Equity?

Achieving equity will take a multi-faceted approach, involving people in all levels of health care, community leaders, advocates, and more. NCOHC is partnering with innovative professionals to address needs, specifically working to increase North Carolina’s dental workforce, expand service areas in underserved communities, and increase accessibility to marginalized groups.

NCOHC is currently partnering with the North Carolina Dental Society to encourage a state-level rule change that would allow dental hygienists to provide critical preventive services in high-need settings. North Carolina is one of the most restrictive states for dental hygienists. This simple rule change will help better utilize North Carolina’s existing dental hygiene workforce, increasing access in under-served parts of the state.

Other avenues to increase equity include:

  1. Working with nontraditional organizations to increase access points outside of the traditional dental office (often known as a “dental home”). This means incorporting dental care in schools, nursing homes, primary care offices, and more.
  2. Coordinating with dental offices to provide translated consent forms, descriptions of procedures, and other helpful content to non-native English speakers and those who don’t speak English at all.
  3. Encouraging innovative ways to utilize the workforce with technological solutions like teledentistry.

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