Dental as a Key Part of Your Practice's Health and Wellness Program

Employers of all types and sizes realize that healthy employees are happier and more productive. Your practice's wellness program shouldn't overlook dental insurance - good oral health can help reduce diabetes, heart disease, cancer and even premature births.

Employers of all types and sizes, including medical practices, realize that healthy employees are happier and more productive. And because they’re less likely to be hospitalized or get seriously ill, healthy employees can save employers — and themselves — a bundle in insurance premiums over the years.

But if your wellness program doesn’t include dental insurance, you won’t get the results you need. Many people won’t see the dentist unless they’re insured.

Nationally, employed adults lose more than 164 million hours of work each year due to oral health problems, according to the Surgeon General’s Report from 2001. Those lost hours represent reduced productivity, increased absenteeism and presenteeism, and lost profits.

And that’s just the time lost from direct oral health problems. In fact, dental disease is tied into all kinds of other health problems. According to that same Surgeon General’s Report, research suggests that gum disease can affect overall health conditions such as heart disease, stroke and premature births.

In fact, more than 75% of American adults suffer from various forms of gum disease and don’t even know it, according to the American Dental Hygienist Association. A dental plan makes it affordable for your employees to discover, diagnose and treat those newly found conditions.

Even physicians may not always be aware of the many links between oral disease and other serious illnesses.

Diabetes and periodontal disease

Diabetes is the fourth leading cause of death among Americans and results in more than 169,000 deaths per year. Approximately 95% of Americans with diabetes also have periodontal disease. About 16 million people in the United States have the disease; yet more than half are unaware of their dental condition.

Blue Cross of Massachusetts analyzed its 2010 claims data and found that the members who had routine cleanings (dental prophylaxis) and/or periodontal treatment had medical costs that were $973 a year less than those who didn’t get that dental treatment.

What’s more, studies have shown that treatment of periodontal disease can result in improved blood sugar control by people with diabetes.

Single dental coverage costs $500 to $600 per year, and those who have diabetes (an ever-increasing share of your workforce) more than recoup the cost of the dental plan via reduced diabetic treatment costs alone. And your practice profits by virtue of the fact that you’ll reduce absenteeism and presenteeism.

Heart disease — saving thousands per year

Heart disease is the number-one killer among men and women, affecting 58 million Americans a year and killing almost 1 million. Studies have shown links between cardiovascular disease and bacteria in periodontal disease. This is backed up by data showing that people with periodontal disease face a huge increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease: 120% to 200% greater than people without the disease.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts correlated the cost of cardiovascular disease among those with and without periodontal treatment and/or dental prophylaxis. It found $4,682 a year in lower medical costs for those employees with heart-disease who were getting appropriate dental care.

Reducing oral cancer

About 30,000 new cases of oral cancer are diagnosed each year. Only half of patients will live five years or longer. Each year 9,000 people die from oral cancer. It is more common than leukemia, skin melanoma, Hodgkin’s disease or cancers of the brain, liver, thyroid, stomach, ovaries and cervix.

Curable in its early stages, it can be treated successfully in more than 90% of cases. If not detected early enough it can spread to other parts of the body and become nearly impossible to treat. It is generally identified as part of an oral screening done by a dentist as part of the routine preventive procedures. That early detection can lead to significantly improved outcomes.

Pre-term and low birth weight babies

In 2008, one out of every eight babies in the U. S. was delivered pre-term (before 37 weeks). That’s a 16% increase since 1990. In addition to that, nearly 8% of all infants were classified as having low birth weight (less than 5.5 lbs), an 18% increase since 1984. Pre-term, low birth weight babies often have serious, long-term functional abnormalities such as asthma, mental retardation, cerebral palsy and poor motor skills.

Here’s where it ties into your dental plan. Studies show that pregnant women who have periodontal disease show up to a sevenfold increase in the risk of delivering low birth weight babies. Researchers estimate that as many as 18% of 250,000 premature babies born in the United States each year may be attributed to infectious oral diseases.

Hospital costs alone for premature infants exceed $5 billion annually. When costs to society in terms of managing long-term disabilities commonly associated with prematurely are considered, this figure escalates dramatically, according to a National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research report titled “The Oral-Systemic Health Connection.”

The good news is that getting dental treatment (either prophylaxis or non-surgical periodontal treatment) before the end of the second trimester can reduce this risk by 70%.

High-risk smokers and gum disease

Smokers have seven times the risk of developing gum disease compared to a non-smoker. People with gum disease have a 4.3 times greater risk of stroke than those with mild or no periodontal disease.

Research shows a significant percentage of people will not obtain medical care during the year. However, most will visit the dentist, particularly if they have insurance.

What if by visiting the dentist employees are made aware of potential health risks? How might catching these potential health problems early affect absenteeism, overall employee health and employee satisfaction with their benefit package?

Your dental plan can make a huge difference in your productivity and your health costs, both direct and indirect. The savings from your dental plan can directly lower your practice’s health costs. And indirectly, you’ll profit from greater productivity.

Jim Edholm is president and founder of BBI Benefits of Andover, Mass. BBI has been guiding Massachusetts employers to cost-effective benefit selection and design for more than a quarter century. For more information, email Jim at JimEd@bbibenefits.com or call (978) 474-4730.