Why dental care should be included in the public health system

Posted on September 18, 2014 in Health Debates

TheGlobeandMail.com – Globe Debate
Sep. 16 2014.   Paul Allison

Paul Allison is an advisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca, Dean in the Faculty of Dentistry at McGill University, and chair of the CAHS panel on “Improving access to oral health care for vulnerable people living in Canada.”

There are many reasons why some Canadians choose not to go to the dentist, but a new report from the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences (CAHS) found that cost is a major factor – and that Canada’s most vulnerable populations have the highest rates of dental decay, pain and disease, but the worst access to this much needed health care service.

The price tag for hospital care and most physician services is covered through our publicly funded health care system, but dental care is largely paid for privately in Canada. The CAHS report reveals that a whopping 95 per cent of dental care is paid out-of-pocket or through private dental insurance and is delivered in private dental offices. The remaining 5 per cent is covered through a hodgepodge of public health programs offered federally and provincially, targeting the needs of specific populations, with many falling through the cracks.

So what happens when you don’t have dental insurance?

The report found that almost half of all Canadians without dental insurance – commonly, new Canadians, the elderly, people working in insecure jobs and for low wages, and their children – avoid visiting a dentist due to costs. In fact, those in the poorest income group were almost four times more likely to avoid the dentist due to costs than the richest group of Canadians.

Vulnerable Canadians with difficulty accessing dental care are also those with the most dental pain, the greatest difficulty eating a healthy diet and the ones with the highest levels of gum disease, which in turn can increase their risk for general health problems, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

In other words, those who need dental care the most are the least likely to be able to get it, and the ones who suffer the most because of it. It may also be costing all of us through increased visits to already crowded emergency rooms and physician offices, and valuable time lost from work, school and other activities.

There are other reasons that people skip seeing their dentist, such as lack of transportation, fear of dental treatment and the dental office, and misunderstandings between dental professionals and certain groups in the population. These complex issues have complex solutions.

But they cannot be addressed without first addressing equity in access to dental care. The CAHS report finds that inequalities in oral disease and access to dental care in Canada are greater than inequalities in general health problems and medical care.

What might surprise many is that Canada actually provides less publicly funded dental care than the United States – and internationally, Canada is among the lowest funders of dental health care programs.

Inequality in access to dental care is but one manifestation of the increasing inequalities in Canadian society and it needs to be addressed. With societal changes such as the increasing proportion of the population who are elderly and the decreasing proportion of the population with dental insurance, difficulty accessing dental care is only going to increase unless we start acting now.

All people living in Canada should have reasonable access to dental care. We need to bring dentistry into the general health care system by having some dental clinics in hospitals and community health centres. We need to explore the use of a variety of dental and other health professionals delivering care in a variety of settings. And we need to explore the financing of dental care for vulnerable groups – including anomalies in tax legislation that help those with dental insurance but not those without.

We need concerted professional, government and community action now to begin to address these issues so that many Canadians will get the dental health care they so desperately need.

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2 Responses to “Why dental care should be included in the public health system”

  1. nathan says:

    this helped a lot for my project thanks

  2. Maria Gunner says:

    I find it funny how a lot of dental clinics will often be beside a bar, a restaurant or in a mall. It’s as if dental care is portrayed, as luxury rather than a need. The Ontario Ministry of Health currently has a program called Healthy Smiles for children 17 and under who’s families to do not have the funds for dental coverage, and “payment plans” for the people who can’t afford to pay now. The average health check-up for people without insurance is roughly $50+ dollars, costs greatly add up if a purse needs an X-ray or filling. This can be a lot for people who are already struggling.
    With the fact that smoking is linked to oral cancer and gum disease, along with other major health, such as, heart disease and stroke, wouldn’t it be more reasonable to provide funds to assist people with early intervention, such as, free dental check ups and care, rather denying funds. The short-term cost would seem more reasonable than the long-term cost. For example, unprotected sex can increase your chances of coming in contact with an STD or cervical cancer, though the government provides free testing and treatment through Public Health agencies. I believe it should be the same for dental care, you can’t make a person take proper care of their teeth (or have protected sex) but treatment and care should be the same for everyone, if they do or don’t.

    Maria Gunner,
    BSW student, Laurentian University


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