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Office of the Surgeon General (US). National Call To Action To Promote Oral Health. Rockville (MD): National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (US); 2003.

Cover of National Call To Action To Promote Oral Health

National Call To Action To Promote Oral Health.

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The Actions

Each of the five actions that follow should be read as a call for a response from the individuals and groups who are most concerned and in a position to act—whether as community leaders, volunteers, health care professionals, research investigators, policymakers, and other concerned parties, or as public and private agencies able to bring their organizational mandates and strengths to the issues. The groups and individuals responding need to work as partners, sharing ideas and coordinating activities to capitalize on joint resources and expertise to achieve common goals. The actions proposed reflect ideas and approaches outlined in the Surgeon General’s Report and emphasized in public testimony during listening sessions. Note, however, that individual Network members may not necessarily concur with every assessment or conclusion in the text that follows.

The theme that emerged was that people care about their oral health, are able to articulate the problems they face, and can devise ingenious solutions to resolve them--often through creative partnerships. Ultimately, the measure of success for any of any of these actions will be the degree to which individuals and communities--the people of the nation itself--gain in overall health and well-being. To achieve those ends, the partners have proposed four guiding principles: Actions should be 1) culturally sensitive, 2) science based, 3) integrated into overall health and well-being efforts, and 4) routinely evaluated.

Action 1. Change Perceptions of Oral Health

For too long, the perception that oral health is in some way less important than and separate from general health has been deeply ingrained in American consciousness. Activities to overcome these attitudes and beliefs can start at the grassroots level, which can then lead to a coordinated national movement to increase oral health literacy, defined as the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic oral and craniofacial information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions. By raising Americans’ level of awareness and understanding of oral health, people can make informed decisions and articulate their expectations of what they, their communities, and oral health professionals can contribute to improving health; health professionals and researchers can benefit from work with oral health partners; and policymakers can commit to including oral health in health policies. In this way, the prevention, early detection, and management of diseases of the dental, oral, and craniofacial tissues can become integrated in health care, community-based programs, and social services, and promote the general health and well-being of all Americans.

Implementation Strategies

Implementation strategies to change perceptions are needed at local, state, regional, and national levels and for all population groups. All stakeholders should work together and use data in order to:

Change public perceptions

  • Enhance oral health literacy.
  • Develop messages that are culturally sensitive and linguistically competent.
  • Enhance knowledge of the value of regular, professional oral health care.
  • Increase the understanding of how the signs and symptoms of oral infections can indicate general health status and act as a marker for other diseases.

Change policymakers’ perceptions

  • Inform policymakers and administrators at local, state, and federal levels of the results of oral health research and programs and of the oral health status of their constituencies.
  • Develop concise and relevant messages for policymakers.
  • Document the health and quality-of-life outcomes that result from the inclusion (or exclusion) of oral health services in programs and reimbursement schedules.

Change health providers’ perceptions

  • Review and update health professional educational curricula and continuing education courses to include content on oral health and the association between oral health and general health.
  • Train health care providers to conduct oral screenings as part of routine physical exams and make appropriate referrals.
  • Promote interdisciplinary training of medical, oral health, and allied health professional personnel in counseling patients about how to reduce risk factors common to oral and general health.
  • Encourage oral health providers to refer patients to other health specialists as warranted by examinations and history. Similarly, encourage medical and surgical providers to refer patients for oral health care when medical or surgical treatments that may impact oral health are planned.

Action 2. Overcome Barriers by Replicating Effective Programs and Proven Efforts

Reduce disease and disability

While the effectiveness of preventive interventions such as community water fluoridation and school-based dental sealants applied to children at risk have been persuasively demonstrated, very few states have implemented both measures sufficiently to meet their health objectives. Private and public agencies have conducted pilot projects and demonstration programs to inform the public and health professionals on ways to reduce the burden of oral disease through education, behavior change, risk reduction, early diagnosis, and disease prevention management. Local efforts to engage and educate community leaders in activities to improve oral health have been developed. The designs and outcomes of those programs should be well documented, evaluated, and made available to others. The Guide to Community Preventive Service3 and The Guide to Clinical Preventive Services4 provide criteria and strong foundations for evaluating the scientific evidence and promoting effective interventions. Testimony at the listening sessions also identified programs and interventions that warrant consideration.

Having accurate data on disease and disabilities for a given population is critical. Program success depends on how well the program is designed and implemented to address the defined problems. While available data reveal variations within and among states and population groups in patterns of health and disease, there are many subpopulations for which data are limited or nonexistent.

Improve oral health care access

Health disparities are commonly associated with populations whose access to health care services is compromised by poverty, limited education or language skills, geographic isolation, age, gender, disability, or an existing medical condition. While Medicaid, State Children’s Health Insurance Programs (SCHIP), and private organizations have expanded outreach efforts to identify and enroll eligible persons and simplify the enrollment process, they have not completely closed the gap. Adults lacking language skills or reading competence may not know that they or their children are eligible for dental (or medical) services. In addition, some 25 million Americans live in dental care shortage areas, as defined by Health Professional Shortage Area criteria.

Those who seek care may be faced with health practitioners who lack the training and cultural competence to communicate effectively in order to provide needed services. Programs that have overcome these barriers, including outreach efforts and community service activities conducted through dental schools and other health professional schools and residency programs, should be highlighted and replicated.

Compounding health disparity problems is the lack of adequate reimbursement for oral care services in both public and private programs. Private insurance coverage for dental care is increasing, but still lags behind medical insurance. Inadequate reimbursement has been reported for many Medicaid and SCHIP programs. Eligibility for Medicaid does not ensure enrollment, and enrollment does not ensure that individuals obtain needed care. Several states are demonstrating the potential for improving children’s oral health access by conducting outreach programs to the public and improving provider participation through operational changes. These improvements include increasing dental reimbursement to competitive levels, eliminating bureaucratic administrative barriers, contracting out the management of dental benefit plans, and modeling commercial insurance programs to eliminate patient stigma associated with Medicaid.

The federal effort to address gaps in care through new funding for oral health services at Community Health Centers and Migrant Health Centers is also a positive step. Appendix 2 describes a number of approaches for improving oral health care access that were presented in testimony. No matter which approach is taken, a necessary first step is to establish close working relationships with the groups in question so that strategies tailored to their varying and continuing health needs can be developed.

Enhance health promotion and health literacy

Public policies and community interventions to make health care and information more accessible have been effective. So have been efforts to encourage healthier lifestyles and increase interventions for prevention or early detection of disease by changing the environment (the places where people work, play, learn, or live). Expansion of community-based health promotion and disease prevention programs, including increasing understanding of what individuals can do to enhance oral health, is essential if the needs of the public are to be met. Policies and programs concerning tobacco cessation, dietary choices, wearing protective gear for sports, and other lifestyle-related efforts not only will benefit oral health, but are natural ways to integrate oral health promotion with promotion of general health and well-being.

Many Americans don’t know why oral health is important, they don’t know all they can do to preserve their oral health, and may not recognize signs indicating that they are in trouble. Several oral health campaigns are raising awareness of why oral health is important and how to access care, such as a nationwide campaign by the American Dental Association emphasizing the importance of the early diagnosis of oral cancer. It is encouraging that messages like these are being communicated--through public service announcements, campaigns, and all the venues available in today’s media-conscious culture. More needs to be done to increase the health literacy of the public.

Implementation Strategies

Implementation strategies to overcome barriers in oral health disparities need to engage all groups, particularly those most vulnerable, in the development of oral health care programs that work to eliminate health disparities and aim to:

Identify and reduce disease and disability

  • Implement science-based interventions appropriate for individuals and communities.
  • Enhance oral health-related content in health professions school curricula, residencies, and continuing education programs, by incorporating new findings on diagnosis, treatment and prevention of oral diseases and disorders.
  • Build and support epidemiologic and surveillance databases at national, state, and local levels to identify patterns of disease and populations at risk. Data are needed on oral health status, disease, and health services utilization and expenditures, sorted by demographic variables for various populations. Surveys should document baseline status, monitor progress, and measure health outcomes.
  • Determine, at community or population levels, oral health care needs and system requirements, including appropriate reimbursement for services, facility and personnel needs, and mechanisms of referral.
  • Encourage partnerships among research, provider, and educational communities in activities, such as organizing workshops and conferences, to develop ways to meet the education, research, and service needs of patients who need special care and their families.
  • Refine protocols of care for special care populations based on the emerging science base.

Improve access to oral health care

  • Promote and apply programs that have demonstrated effective improvement in access to care.
  • Create an active and up-to-date database of these programs.
  • Explore policy changes that can improve provider participation in public health insurance programs and enhance patient access to care.
  • Remove barriers to the use of services by simplifying forms, letting individuals know when and how to obtain services, and providing transportation and child care as needed. Assist low-income patients in arranging and keeping oral health appointments.
  • Facilitate health insurance benefits for diseases and disorders affecting craniofacial, oral, and dental tissues, including genetic diseases such as the ectodermal dysplasias, congenital anomalies such as clefting syndromes, autoimmune diseases such as Sjögren’s syndrome, and chronic orofacial pain conditions such as temporomandibular disorders.
  • Ensure an adequate number and distribution of culturally competent providers to meet the needs of individuals and groups, particularly in health-care shortage areas.
  • Make optimal use of oral health and other health care providers in improving access to oral health care.
  • Energize and empower the public to implement solutions to meet their oral health care needs.
  • Develop integrated and comprehensive care programs that include oral health care and increase the number and types of settings in which oral health services are provided.
  • Explore ways to sustain successful programs.
  • Apply evaluation criteria to determine the effectiveness of access programs and develop modifications as necessary.

Enhance health promotion and health literacy

  • Apply strategies to enhance the adoption and maintenance of proven community-based and clinical interventions, such as community water fluoridation and dental sealants application.
  • Identify the knowledge, opinions, and practices of the public, health care providers, and policymakers with regard to oral diseases and oral health.
  • Engage populations and community organizations in the development of health promotion and health literacy action plans.
  • Publicize successful programs that promote oral health to facilitate their replication.
  • Develop and support programs promoting general health that include activities supporting oral health (such as wearing oral facial protection, tobacco cessation, good nutrition).

Action 3. Build the Science Base and Accelerate Science Transfer

Advances in health depend on biomedical and behavioral research aimed at understanding the causes and pathological processes of diseases. This can lead to interventions that will improve prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. Too many people outside the oral health community are uninformed about, misinformed about, or simply not interested in oral health. Such lack of understanding and indifference may explain why community water fluoridation and school-based dental sealant programs fall short of full implementation, even though the scientific evidence for their effectiveness has been known for some time and was reaffirmed with the release of Oral Health in America. These and other effective preventive and early detection programs should be expanded—especially to populations at risk.

Biomedical and behavioral research in the 21st century will provide the knowledge base for an ever-evolving health care practice. This scientific underpinning requires the support of the full range of research from basic studies to large-scale clinical trials. To achieve a balanced science portfolio it is essential to expand clinical studies, especially the study of complex oral diseases that involve the interactions of genetic, behavioral, and environmental factors. Clinical trials are needed to test interventions to diagnose and manage oral infections, complications from systemic diseases and their treatment, congenital and acquired defects, and other conditions. Oral health research must also pursue research on chronic oral infections associated with heart and lung disease, diabetes, and premature low-birth-weight babies. Such research must be complemented by prevention and behavioral science research (including community-based approaches and ways to change risk behavior), health services research to explore how the structure and function of health care services affect health outcomes, and by population health and epidemiology research to understand potential associations among diseases and possible risk factors. Surveys are needed to establish baseline health data for America’s many subpopulations as well as to monitor changing patterns of disease.

No one can foresee the findings from genetic studies in the years ahead, but without question these advances will profoundly affect health, even indicating an individual’s susceptibility to major diseases and disorders. Hybrid sciences of importance to oral health are also on the rise. For example, bioengineering studies are establishing the basis for repair and regeneration of the body’s tissues and organs—including teeth, bones, and joints-- and ultimately full restoration of function. Oral diagnostics, using saliva or oral tissue samples, will contribute to overall health surveillance and monitoring.

If the public and their care providers are to benefit from research, efforts are needed to transfer new oral knowledge into improved means of diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. The public needs to be informed, accurately and often, of findings that affect their health. They need clear descriptions of the results from research and demonstration projects concerning lifestyle behaviors and disease prevention practices. At the same time, research is needed to determine the effect of oral health literacy on oral health. Communities and organizations must also be able to reap the benefits of scientific advances, which may contribute to changes in the reimbursement and delivery of services, as well as enhance knowledge of risk factors. Advances in science and technology also mean that life-long learning for practitioners is essential, as is open lines of communication among laboratory scientists, clinicians, and the academic faculties that design the curricula, write the textbooks, and teach the classes that prepare the next generation of health care providers.

Implementation Strategies

Implementation strategies to build a balanced science base and accelerate science transfer should benefit all consumers, especially those in poorest oral health or at greatest risk. Specifically there is a need to:

Enhance applied research (clinical and population-based studies, demonstration projects, health services research) to improve oral health and prevent disease

  • Expand intervention studies aimed at preventing and managing oral infections and complex diseases, including new approaches to prevent dental caries and periodontal diseases.
  • Intensify population-based studies aimed at the prevention of oral cancer and oral-facial trauma.
  • Conduct studies to elucidate potential underlying mechanisms and determine any causal associations between oral infections and systemic conditions. If associations are demonstrated, test interventions to prevent or lower risk of complications.
  • Develop diagnostic markers for disease susceptibility and progression of oral diseases.
  • Develop and test diagnostic codes for oral diseases that can be used in research and in practice.
  • Investigate risk assessment approaches for individuals and communities, and translate them into optimal prevention, diagnosis, and treatment measures.
  • Develop biologic measures of disease and health that can be used as outcome variables and applied in epidemiologic studies and clinical trials.
  • Develop reliable and valid measures of patients’ oral health outcomes for use in programs and in practice.
  • Support research on the effectiveness of community-based and clinical interventions.
  • Facilitate collaborations among health professional schools, state health programs, patient groups, professional associations, private practitioners, industries, and communities to support the conduct of clinical and community-based research as well as accelerate science transfer.

Accelerate the effective transfer of science into public health and private practice

  • Promote effective disease prevention measures that are underutilized.
  • Routinely transfer oral health research findings to health professional school curricula and continuing education programs and incorporate appropriate curricula from other health professions-- medical, nursing, pharmacy, and social work--into dental education.
  • Communicate research findings to the public, clearly describing behaviors and actions that promote health and well-being.
  • Explore ways to accelerate the transfer of research findings into delivery systems, including appropriate changes in reimbursement for care.
  • Routinely evaluate the scientific evidence and update care recommendations.

Action 4. Increase Oral Health Workforce Diversity, Capacity, and Flexibility

Meet patient needs

The patient pool of any health care provider tends to mirror the provider’s own racial and ethnic background5. As such, the provider can play a catalytic role as a community spokesperson, addressing key health problems and service needs. While the number of women engaged in the health professions is increasing, the number of underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities is decreasing and remains limited. Specific racial and ethnic groups are underrepresented in the active dental profession compared to their representation in the general population: African Americans comprise 2.2 percent of active dentists versus 12 percent of the population; Hispanics comprise 2.8 percent of active dentists versus 10.7 percent of the population; Native Americans comprise 0.2 percent of active dentists versus 0.7 percent of the population. The reasons are complex but certainly include the high cost of dental school education (upwards of $100,000 indebtedness for dentist graduates). Efforts to address these problems at all levels—from improving K-12 education in science and math to providing scholarships and loan forgiveness programs for college and pre-doctoral programs--are essential if a truly representative health workforce is to be achieved. Efforts require full community participation, mentorship, and creative outreach as well as building upon federal or state legislation and programs.

Enhance oral health workforce capacity

The lack of progress in supplying dental health professional shortage areas with needed professional personnel underscores the need for attention to the distribution of care providers, as well as the overall capacity of the collective workforce to meet the anticipated demand for oral health care as public understanding of its importance increases. Dental school recruitment programs that offer incentives to students who may want to return to practice in rural areas and inner cities are in a prime position to act. Through these programs schools increase the diversity of the oral health workforce. To effect change in oral health workforce capacity, more training and recruitment efforts are needed. The lack of personnel with oral health expertise at all levels in public health programs remains a serious problem, as does the projected unmet oral health faculty and researcher needs. In public health programs, oral health professionals are needed to implement surveillance, assess needs, and target population-based preventive programs. Oral health professionals in state health agencies frequently promote integration of federal, state, and local strategies and serve as the linking agent for public-private collaborations. Currently, there is an acknowledged crisis in the ability to recruit faculty to dental schools and to attract clinicians into research careers. Dental school faculty and oral health researchers are needed to address the various scientific challenges and opportunities oral health presents, and to help transfer emerging knowledge to the next generation of health care providers. The lack of trained professionals ultimately results in a loss in the public’s health. Efforts are underway to address these needs, but the rate of recruitment and retention is slow. Scholarships and loan forgiveness programs have made a difference, but more public investment in developing health workforce personnel is needed.

Enhance flexibility and develop local solutions

The movement of some states towards more flexible laws, including licensing experienced dentists by credentials is a positive one and today, 42 states currently permit this activity. The goal of moving society toward optimal use of its health professionals is especially important in a society that has become increasingly mobile, especially since the oral health workforce has projected shortages that are already evident in many rural locales. State practice act changes that would permit, for example, alternative models of delivery of needed care for underserved populations, such as low-income children or institutionalized persons, would allow a more flexible and efficient workforce. Further, all health care professionals, whether trained at privately or publicly supported medical, dental, or allied health professional schools, need to be enlisted in local efforts to eliminate health disparities in America. These activities could include participating in state-funded programs for reducing disparities, part-time service in community clinics or in health care shortage areas, assisting in community-based surveillance and health assessment activities, participating in school-based disease prevention efforts, and volunteering in health-promotion and disease-prevention efforts such as tobacco cessation programs.

Implementation Strategies

Implementation strategies to increase diversity, capacity, and flexibility must be applied to all components of the workforce: research, education, and both private and public health administration and practice. Efforts are needed to:

Change the racial and ethnic composition of the workforce to meet patient and community needs

  • Document the outcomes of existing efforts to diversify the workforce in practice, education, and research.
  • Develop ways to expand and build upon successful recruitment and retention programs, and develop and test new programs that focus on individuals from underrepresented groups.
  • Document the outcomes of existing efforts to recruit individuals into careers in oral health education, research, and public and private health practice.
  • Create and support programs that inform and encourage individuals to pursue health and science career options in high school and during graduate years.

Ensure a sufficient workforce pool to meet health care needs

  • Expand scholarships and loan repayment efforts at all levels.
  • Specify and identify resources for conducting outreach and recruitment.
  • Develop mentoring programs to ensure retention of individuals who have been successfully recruited into oral health careers.
  • Facilitate collaborations among professional, government, academic, industry, community organizations, and other institutions that are addressing the needs of the oral health workforce.
  • Provide training in communication skills and cultural competence to health care providers and students.

Secure an adequate and flexible workforce

  • Assess the existing capacity and distribution of the oral health workforce.
  • Study how to extend or expand workforce capacity and productivity to address oral health in health care shortage areas.
  • Work to ensure oral health expertise is available to health departments and to federal, state, and local government programs.
  • Determine the effects of flexible licensure policies and state practice acts on health care access and oral health outcomes.

Action 5. Increase Collaborations

The private sector and public sector each has unique characteristics and strengths. Linking the two can result in a creative synergy capitalizing on the talent and resources of each partner. In addition, efforts are needed within each sector to increase the capacity for program development, for building partnerships, and for leveraging programs. A sustained effort is needed right now to build the nation’s oral health infrastructure to ensure that all sectors of society--the public, private practitioners, and federal and state government personnel--have sufficient knowledge, expertise, and resources to design, implement, and monitor oral health programs. Leadership for successfully directing and guiding public agency oral health units is essential. Further, incentives must be in place for partnerships to form and flourish.

Disease prevention and health promotion campaigns and programs that affect oral and general health--such as tobacco control, diet counseling, health education aimed at pregnant women and new mothers, and support for use of oral facial protection for sports—can benefit from collaborations among public health and health care practicing communities. Interdisciplinary care is needed to manage the general health-oral health interface. Achieving and maintaining oral health requires individual action, complemented by professional care and community-based activities. Many programs require the combined efforts of social service, education, and health care services at state and local levels. Most importantly, the public in the form of voluntary organizations, community groups, or as individuals, must be included in any partnership that addresses oral and general health.

Implementation Strategies

Implementation strategies to enhance partnering are key to all strategies in the Call To Action. Successful partnering at all levels of society will require efforts to:

  • Invite patient advocacy groups to lead efforts in partnering for programs directed towards their constituencies.
  • Strengthen the networking capacity of individuals and communities to address their oral health needs.
  • Build and nurture broad-based coalitions that incorporate views and expertise of all stakeholders and that are tailored to specific populations, conditions, or programs.
  • Strengthen collaborations among dental, medical, and public health communities for research, education, care delivery, and policy development.
  • Develop partnerships that are community-based, cross-disciplinary, and culturally sensitive.
  • Work with the Partnership Network and other coalitions to address the four actions previously described: change perceptions, overcome barriers, build a balanced science base, and increase oral health workforce diversity, capacity, and flexibility.
  • Evaluate and report on the progress and outcomes of partnership efforts.
  • Promote examples of state-based coalitions for others to use as models.


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