The dentist’s chair – that dreaded place with a dreaded cost. According to recent research from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), whether or not you sit in that very chair is closely associated with overall health in Australia, with global studies also showing that poor oral health being an indicator for general health, and vice versa.
Why is dental care so important?
There are a number of reasons why dental health should be considered as important as any other kind of healthcare. According to the World Health Organisation and the new Australian study:
- Men are slightly more affected by tooth decay, cavities and gum disease than women
- Age is the biggest factor when it comes to gum disease, with 53% of the over 65 population being affected
- Like other health outcomes, dental health is negatively affected by tobacco and alcohol use, diet and socioeconomic factors
- The ability to access dental services is a key determinant of oral health outcomes, and therefore overall health outcomes
Where are the gaps?
So, as Australians, are we heading in the right direction when it comes to our own teeth and gums, or are there still some major gaps to fill? Let’s look at the stats that the recent report found.
- Routine check-ups are just as important as treating a known dental problem. According to the AIHW study, those who receive regular routine care report reduced rates of tooth extractions and slightly lower rates of fillings. With preventative and routine care like cleaning and removing plaques, re-mineralising the teeth or closing fine cracks being far more cost-effective for both patient and health insurance provider, it makes economic sense as well as contributing to better health outcomes.
- Less people with private health insurance have untreated tooth decay, at a rate of 19.4%. Compare this with the uninsured population, at 31.1%. Untreated decay can lead to increasing pain, abscess (a collection of pus in the tooth or gum), dark spots appearing on your teeth, bad breath or an unpleasant taste in your mouth. Not only that, it will influence what and how you eat, with tooth problems causing up to 1 in 5 Australians to avoid certain foods, with the problem increasing as you age. Those without health insurance avoided certain foods due to dental problems at a rate 60% higher than those who did have insurance.
- Many people who have their natural teeth feel uncomfortable or even embarrassed about their appearance. In the 15-24 age group, this feeling of discomfort is 18.7%, but it’s not just general adolescent and young adulthood insecurity. The figure actually rises with age, with those aged 45-65 reporting embarrassment or discomfort at a rate of 28.8%. The uninsured are about 30% more likely to be uncomfortable with their teeth than insured people. Feeling insecure about your teeth can have an impact on your self-esteem, which may contribute to shyness or a reluctance to smile.
- The most recent figures show that about 1 in 7 people (15.0%) over the age of 15 report that they had experienced toothache in the previous 12 months. Compare this with the 1 in 10 people (10.1%) over the age of 65 who report a toothache in the same time frame and you’ll realise that dental cover is not just for the ageing – it plays a vital role throughout the life span. The report also shows that it doesn’t matter what you earn, where you live or whether you were male or female – people get toothaches at roughly the same rate.
- People with health insurance have less gum disease. The AIHW report shows us that the insured experience gum disease at a rate of 19.4%, compared with 27% of the uninsured population. For those living in a remote area, the rate of gum disease rises as high as 36.3%, compared with just 22.1% of those in major cities.
What’s trending in dental health?
For dental health in Australia, the news from the AIHW is mixed: we are improving in some areas and falling behind in others. They report the following:
- The number of people over the age of 15 who have seen a dentist in the past 12 months has risen
- The number of employed dentist has recently increased, perhaps improving availability and access
- Children’s baby teeth have been increasingly affected by decay since 1996
- Oral health complaints have generally risen
- Cost has increasingly been cited as a reason to avoid visiting a dentist
The real cost of dental care
According to government figures, dental cover is by far the most popular (or used) extra when you look at the figures from the Department of Health: from 2013-2014, private health insurers spent $2.2 billion on dental services, with an overall outlay of $4.3 billion for all treatment services. That’s a staggering 51.6%. Compare that with the next item on the list, optical, with a cost of 17.4% of the rebates.Related: Happy gums and healthy smiles – dental care from birth to adolescence
When you consider the potential cost of good, routine dental care and its overall role in preventative health care, the figures speak for themselves – dental care is required across the entire life span, and dental cover leads to better health outcomes.