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Closing the dental divide

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Ending the dental–medical divide is essential for efficient health care expenditure and improved health outcomes

A smile from any Australian, young or old, tells an instant story of a dental divide that is painful, costly and harmful to health and wellbeing. Their oral health and dentition are measures of their socioeconomic status, employability and self-esteem and predictors of their physical health.

Oral diseases can ravage the rest of the body and physical illnesses and trauma affect oral health.1 Moreover, the risk factors for oral disease and dental decay — high sugar diets, poor hygiene, smoking and excessive alcohol consumption — are also risk factors for heart disease and cancers.1 Yet medicine and dentistry remain distinct practices that have never been treated the same way by the health care system, health insurance funds, public health professionals, policymakers and the public.

Medicare was established to ensure all Australians have affordable access to health care, but from the beginning routine dental care was excluded.2 It is a separation that is increasingly hard to rationalise on health grounds.

The burden of disease associated with oral health problems is huge. Tooth decay is Australia’s most prevalent health problem, and edentulism (loss of all natural teeth)…