New Survey Shows People in Washington Value Oral Health

New Washington State Health Exchange currently lacks adult dental coverage people want

By Russell Maier, MD

Program Director of Central Washington Family Medicine Residency

Clinical Professor of Family Medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine

Board Member, Washington Dental Service Foundation

Adults in Washington overwhelmingly think oral health is very important to overall health, according to a new study released this week. Medical, dental and public health experts agree that good oral health is an essential part of a person’s overall health and fitness.

Despite this proven connection between oral health and overall health, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) doesn’t mandate dental care for adults.  However, the Washington Health Benefit Exchange is considering adding adult dental coverage in 2015. This is good news because polling shows that the vast majority of people in Washington believe that oral health is very important.

A study by the Washington Dental Service Foundation, released this week, shows that four out of five Washingtonians (83%) agree that “it is important for Washington state to provide access to quality dental care to adults who can’t afford it, including preventive care.”

Currently, one out of three Washingtonians (32%) lacks coverage for dental care, and nearly a quarter (23%) have not had a dental check-up in the last year. Contrast those numbers with the numbers seeking medical care –  91% saw a physician in the last year.   These are surprising statistics, given the fact that the vast majority (98%) of people in Washington believe that taking care of their teeth and gums is as important as taking care of their overall health.

Dental disease is almost entirely preventable, but when people do not receive routine care, small problems can quickly deteriorate into severe infections and lost teeth.  Untreated dental problems cause needless pain and suffering, threaten overall health, and can end up costing thousands of dollars in treatment and time away from work.  Every cavity prevented saves thousands of dollars over a person’s lifetime.

Regular dental checkups, along with proper brushing and flossing, can save significant amounts of money for individuals, families and businesses.   Preventive care even saves money for taxpayers who cover the costs of providing dental care to low-income people in the state.

When people don’t have dental coverage they often end up seeking expensive emergency care.  In the most recent study conducted by the Washington State Hospital Association, dental problems were a key reason why individuals seek care in emergency rooms at a cost of $36 million over an 18-month period.  But emergency rooms only treat the pain and infection; they are not equipped to treat the underlying dental problem.

The value of good oral health extends well beyond avoiding dental costs.  Poor oral health is linked to serious chronic health problems, such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes.  Among diabetics, for example, treating gum disease can help control blood sugar levels and avoid costly hospitalizations and medical complications such as blindness and amputations.

To raise awareness that oral health is an essential part of overall health Washington Dental Service Foundation is working with physicians, dentists and fitness experts across the state to develop a statewide campaign that will be launched in January.  The campaign, which will include advertising and social media, is designed to help people value their oral health and motivate them to do more to prevent dental disease and stay healthy.  More information is available at

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