Addressing oral health disparities crucial for healthy communities

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Oral health disparities are a significant problem in most of America's large cities. To successfully address this issue fresh thinking may be needed to develop new models of delivering care as well as collaboration among different groups, said Dr. Joanne Dawley, president of the Michigan Dental Association and School of Dentistry alumna.

In remarks delivered at U-M Hospital as part of the 23rd Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium, Dawley outlined the scope of the problem and a "perfect storm" of converging factors that will make it increasingly important for dentists and physicians, research scientists and technicians, and business and political leaders to work together.

Oral health disparities are especially acute in Detroit where more than 16 percent, or 147,000 of the city's nearly 900,000 residents, are uninsured. By comparison, Dawley said, the statewide average in Michigan is about 7.8 percent. The problem is expected to worsen as the auto industry contracts and other manufacturing businesses jettison workers who now have dental and medical insurance.

Compounding the problem are low reimbursements for dentists providing oral health care to their Medicaid patients, now about 30 cents on the dollar, as well as uncertainty about what role dentistry might have as a part of any national health care plan considered by the Obama administration.

"Health care is a noble and honest profession, but it's also a business and we need sound financial principles and policies that will allow those in the profession to deal with oral health care disparities," Dawley said.

The MLK Day Health Science Program was sponsored by the School of Dentistry, the Medical School, the School of Public Health, the School of Nursing, the School of Social Work, the College of Pharmacy, and U-M Hospitals and Health Care Centers.