I have a confession to make. I’m a dental hygienist, and my children have yet to step foot into a dental office. For many of you, I’m assuming your jaw just dropped open in astonishment! For the rest, I’m guessing that you find yourself nodding in agreement, perhaps because you’ve been in my shoes.
For the last year, I’ve had a single, yellow sticky note stuck to our family calendar with a hastily scribbled message that says, “Schedule dental appointments!” Each time I flip the calendar to a new month, I breathe out in a huff of guilt and shake my head, embarrassed and disappointed that I, once again, did not make dental care a priority.
Don’t get me wrong, by nature my daughters are quite educated in regards to their teeth and good oral hygiene habits. At ages three and five, they practically beg to break out gloves, masks, and toothbrushes to play “dentist.”
My point is this. Even though we have professional careers in dentistry, many of us still face multiple barriers when it comes to accessing dental care for our families and sometimes even for ourselves. Whether we’ve recently moved to a new town, gone through significant life changes, or simply have lacked the time or financial means, we face the same barriers to care as our patients do. Let’s be honest, do you even know if your health insurance includes dental coverage? (Confession: I don’t!)
How access is being enhanced
The good news for both our patients and ourselves is that the dental industry has made significant strides in the last decade to help increase access to care and prevention. An important thing to note is that in the past, the phrase “access to care” has typically been used when discussing communities that are indigent, lack autonomy, are located in rural areas, or do not have the proper education to prevent oral diseases.
Instead, let us reframe the phrase in order to apply it to all persons who have a difficult time accessing dental care, no matter how rich or poor they may be. The reality is disease does not discriminate, and many of our wealthy, autonomous, and urban patients struggle with the same oral health issues as the rest of the world.
Recently, dental providers, as well as product and service businesses, have incorporated new trends and models to help address access to dental care, including:
- Dental offices extending clinical hours into the evenings and weekends
- Dental practices expanding reach into multiple physical locations
- Mobile dentistry is on the rise and more prevalent
- Dental support organizations helping dentists run their business so the dentist can focus on clinical work
- The introduction of new technologies like teledentistry, cloud-based apps and software, and social media networks to allow for easier communication between patient and provider
- The establishment of Dental Therapist and Community Health Aide Therapist provider models
- The increase in states that allow dental hygienists to practice without onsite supervision
- The expansion of scope and supervision for dental assistants across the country
- Integrated dental services within health facilities, care facilities, and schools
As I flip our family calendar and re-attach that yellow sticky note to each new month, I am reminded that accessing dental care is a privilege for many, and I am encouraged to continue advocating for new and innovative ways for dental care to be accessible for all.
As this year ends and a new one begins, I encourage you to get involved in your local advocacy movements within professional associations, health departments, and oral health coalitions in order to help increase access to dental care for both rich and poor communities. Doing so now will help change the course of our patients’ futures. With that capability, dental hygienists across the country can celebrate together as the health of our communities improves!