Is oral health the unspoken determinant?
BY AMA PRESIDENT DR TONY BARTONE
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s (AIHW) report Australia’s Health 2012, most people will experience oral health issues at some point in their life. In fact, oral diseases are recurrently among the most frequently reported health problems by Australians.
Considered a disease of affluence up until the late 20th century, poor oral health outcomes have now become an indicator of disadvantage, highlighting a lack of access to preventative services. Insufficient access to, high cost of, or long waiting periods for dental services; and low oral care education, have all been associated with patients not seeking dental care when it is needed. Of course, non-fluoridised water supplies also has a role in explaining the prevalence.
However, more recently, it is the modifiable risk factors like poor nutrition, smoking, substance use, stress, and poor oral hygiene that are considered to have the greatest impacts on periodontal diseases.
Dental conditions frequently rank in the top 10 potentially preventable acute condition hospital admissions for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and were the third leading cause of all preventable hospitalisations in 2013-14, with 63,000 admissions.
Like most other health conditions, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have poorer oral health outcomes. While Indigenous people currently have most of the same oral health risk factors as non-Indigenous people, they are less likely to have the same access to preventative measures, leading to marked disparities in oral health between Indigenous people and other Australians.
While the majority of oral health concerns are often considered inconsequential, such as avoiding certain foods, or cosmetic with people embarrassed about their physical appearance, there is a significant body of evidence which suggests that oral health may be the undiscussed determinant of health.
More than two decades ago, population-based studies identified possible links between oral health status and chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease (CVD), diabetes, respiratory diseases, stroke, and kidney diseases, as well as pre-term low birthweight. And the relationship appears to lie with inflammation.
It is clear more research is needed to determine the exact links (if any), between periodontal disease and chronic disease condition, however, the growing body of evidence links poor oral health to major chronic illnesses.
The Government has made numerous financial commitments to improving access to dental services, however, oral health data will continue to demonstrate that without equitable access to dental services, Australians, and particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, will continue to suffer poorer oral health outcomes, and potentially poorer health outcomes, as a result.
The AMA supports improved Doctor/Dentist collaborations if such partnerships could lead to increased early identification of both chronic disease and oral health conditions, particularly for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, for whom oral health services are less frequently accessed.
Dental Health Week is 6-12 August 2018.