Years ago, my primary care doctor told me that flossing every day would add two years to my life.
That stuck with me.
But it also got me thinking. Why did my family medicine physician give me advice on dental care? The reason was simple. It was because he knew that good oral health was directly related to my overall health. The idea of oral health and overall health being intertwined is nothing new. Still, people see dental appointments as nonessential and even dental insurance is hard to come by.
Dr. Sarandeep Huja, dean of the Medical University of South Carolina’s College of Dental Medicine, said, “When you have inflammation in the mouth, it is thought that it enhances inflammatory markers in the bloodstream and affects the immune system. The best example are the effects of periodontal disease, also known as gum disease, which has been linked to both heart attacks and diabetes. It is not a direct causality at this point.”
He went on to say that what these diseases have in common are poor diet and smoking.
“Nutrition, as you know, is very important in oral health and overall health,” he reiterated.
Is it correct to say that the mouth is a window into the health of the body? It is true that cancer lesions found in the mouth by dentists are an example of systemic diseases related to oral health. In addition, there are the effects of poor oral health in pregnant women, which can translate to an increased risk of delivering preterm and low birth weight infants.
“The mouth is filled with bacteria, and, if proper care and attention are not given to cleaning, inflammation and infection will occur,” Dr. Huja explained.
There even are studies by the American Dental Association about periodontal disease being associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
An important question is: How can we achieve better oral health as a community? Dr. Huja believes that wellness through education about overall health and integrating dental care with general medicine could be the answer.
Dr. John Cotter, a primary care family physician with New Horizon Family Health Services in Travelers Rest, has been working in primary care for 30 years, and he believes people enjoy a level of trust with their family physician that doesn’t exist in their relationship with other health care professionals.
“You get to know them over time,” he said. “This in turn makes people more comfortable and establishes a trust.”
Because family physicians such as Dr. Cotter see patients from babies to seniors, primary care has become vital in educating the general population on the importance of oral health in terms of overall health.
“Poor oral health can increase your risk of other medical conditions, including heart disease and infections such as heart valve infections and meningitis,” Dr. Cotter noted.
Dr. Huja recognizes that access to care is one reason many primary care doctors like Dr. Cotter can help their patients by advising them on oral health.
“Many people just cannot afford to see a dentist,” Dr. Huja explained. “And that is why our family doctors have such an important role of educating their patients on good oral hygiene.”
Community health centers such as New Horizon Family Health Services help address barriers to access by offering discounts to patients without insurance who qualify. To make dental care more convenient, services are provided both in the dental office and on the organization’s mobile dental unit. New Horizon offers both primary medical and dental services, allowing providers to collaborate on a patient’s care. Dr. Huja sees the need for coordination among oral and primary care providers.
“Even if we all just had access to the same medical records of a patient – that would be a great start. It is important for all of us to know the unique medical history of each individual,” said Dr. Huja.
The issue of telehealth is gaining importance as well. Primary care doctors such as Dr. Cotter are able to utilize virtual visits, especially during the current pandemic, but the technology is more difficult for dental visits, which, in many cases, must take place in person – a necessity that has become a more difficult hurdle to overcome in the world of COVID-19.
“We’re safer than most places people go,” Dr. Huja reassured. “We wear masks, face shields and PPE. We are exceeding the CDC guidelines, and we are safe.”
As much as primary care physicians and dentists urge that delaying preventive care and well-checks can lead to more serious, and costly, issues down the road, patients still may be reluctant to make dental appointments while the threat of the coronavirus looms.
“It is about balancing the risk. I do think that people are seeing that the virus might not be going anywhere anytime soon, so they know they still need to get their appointments in. I would encourage people to see their dentists this year. We are safe, and we want you to be, too – for now and in the long run,” Dr. Huja concluded.
By Theresa Stratford