It’s Not About Oral Health — It’s About Health

I recently returned from the Oral Health 2020 National Network Gathering hosted by the DentaQuest Foundation in Phoenix, Arizona. This was a gathering of nearly 500 committed community, state, and national stakeholders working to improve oral health for all by developing strong alignment around core strategies. Oral Health 2020 (OH2020) is a network aligned around shared goals and targets and committed to ensuring oral health is regarded as essential to overall health and well-being.

The oral health movement that has gathered momentum in recent years is in response to increasing recognition of the linkage between oral and systemic health, which has resulted in policy and program initiatives to broaden the oral health workforce and reach the nearly 50 million people living in areas where accessing dental care is difficult. Starting with Oral Health in America: A Report of the Surgeon General in 2000, the oral health movement has called for equipping non-dental providers with oral health competencies to increase access to care. In 2010, the PA Leadership Initiative in Oral Health brought the four national PA organizations (PAEA, NCCPA, AAPA, and ARC-PA) together to work toward a shared goal of reducing disparities and eradicating dental disease.

It is important to recognize that oral health is not a fad. Oral health belongs in primary care, just like anything else that PAs routinely assess when caring for patients (such as seatbelt use, immunization status, or a history of heart disease).  Providing oral health care in the primary care and pediatric setting even brings with it USPTF B level recommendations. Solid research indicates it belongs, and we must continue to develop and accelerate the network of PAs who are informed about oral health, as well as graduate students who are ready to incorporate oral health guidelines into their practice.

The oral health movement has motivated PA educators and students alike because we believe that everyone should have an equal opportunity to be healthy — oral health is a key component of overall health and social equity. The OH2020 goals and targets are laudable, and both individual PA programs and national PA organizations can make an impact on these targets. For now, let’s focus in on one OH2020 goal, which is to “eradicate dental disease in children.” The associated OH2020 target is to close disparity gaps so that 85 percent of children reach age five without a cavity. Here’s how PAs can make an impact:

  • Adopt validated assessment tools and conduct early risk/preventative assessments.
  • Engage patients in behavioral changes and promote optimal home health practices, including brushing, diet, and nutrition.
  • Provide students with the knowledge and skills required to implement oral health care in their practice.

To learn more, check out AAPA’s Oral Health Resource Center, part of Learning Central, and Smiles for Life: A national oral health curriculum for more information and free CME.

And to get involved as an educator, check out the nccPA Health Foundation web page for a number of great resources including curriculum and grant funding for faculty interested in integrating oral health at their program.

Special thanks: The PA Leadership Initiative in Oral Health is supported by the National Interprofessional Initiative on Oral Health with funding from the DentaQuest Foundation, Washington Dental Service Foundation, and the Reach Health Care Foundation.