• An estimated 3.5 billion people globally suffer from oral diseases – many of which are preventable.
  • The economic impact of unmanaged oral health is approximately $54 billion in lost productivity for employers.
  • Integrating dental care into universal health coverage programmes could improve oral health and help prevent disease.

According to the World Health Organization Global Burden of Disease Study 2017, it’s estimated that 3.5 billion people globally suffer from oral diseases – many of which are preventable through proper oral care, diet and access to dental health services. The benefit of good oral health goes beyond our teeth and gum health; oral disease is linked to other systemic diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s disease – and could play a key role in disease prevention as well.

In most countries, dental care is often not included in basic health insurance packages and must be covered out-of-pocket or as an add-on insurance cost. This makes the preventative power of oral health costly for individuals, who often choose not to purchase dental coverage and only visit their dentist for emergencies.

Without access to regular dental services, patients are left with untreated inflammation and pain which increases the risk of periodontal disease and other systemic complications. In turn, the economic impact of unmanaged oral health adds up to an estimated $54 billion loss of productivity for employers, largely due to absence from work.

However, we can reduce these numbers by ensuring that dental insurance is better integrated into universal healthcare coverage, rather than as an add-on.

It’s important to note that while this integration is not the only solution to lowering the cost of care and expanding access, it could make a sizeable difference. Data from the World Health Survey shows the global disparity in oral healthcare coverage, from 64.6% uncovered people in low-income countries to 18.2% uncovered people in high-income countries – underscoring the need for greater coverage across the socio-economic spectrum.

Integrating dental and medical health can help prevent disease

One change that’s already underway is in healthcare policies globally, reorienting oral health within the overall healthcare industry. Last year, the WHO made a step forward with its historic resolution on oral health, the agreement among member states that oral healthcare interventions should be included in universal health coverage programmes. This is just the start of a timely shift from curative medicine to preventative health – but policy alone is not enough to drive this forward.

The reorientation of oral health within universal health also requires stronger partnerships across the entire system, between private and public healthcare sectors, dental practices, and insurance providers to improve public health at scale. Even within the industry, there’s an opportunity to bridge the gap between dental and medical communities to partner up in proactive wellness, rather than drawing lines between healthcare vs oral care – which has been the traditional norm.

Health and healthcare

How is the World Economic Forum bringing data-driven healthcare to life?

The application of “precision medicine” to save and improve lives relies on good-quality, easily-accessible data on everything from our DNA to lifestyle and environmental factors. The opposite to a one-size-fits-all healthcare system, it has vast, untapped potential to transform the treatment and prediction of rare diseases—and disease in general.

But there is no global governance framework for such data and no common data portal. This is a problem that contributes to the premature deaths of hundreds of millions of rare-disease patients worldwide.

The World Economic Forum’s Breaking Barriers to Health Data Governance initiative is focused on creating, testing and growing a framework to support effective and responsible access – across borders – to sensitive health data for the treatment and diagnosis of rare diseases.

The data will be shared via a “federated data system”: a decentralized approach that allows different institutions to access each other’s data without that data ever leaving the organization it originated from. This is done via an application programming interface and strikes a balance between simply pooling data (posing security concerns) and limiting access completely.

The project is a collaboration between entities in the UK (Genomics England), Australia (Australian Genomics Health Alliance), Canada (Genomics4RD), and the US (Intermountain Healthcare).

Imagine that your basic health insurance package includes a dental cleaning and check-up every six months. During your oral exam, you also have a few non-invasive vital measures taken – like blood pressure, pulse rate and respiratory rate. These vitals are shared automatically with your trusted GP who can easily, remotely monitor your health trends over time from your data. Then, during your exam, your dentist detects early signs of periodontitis – also known as gum disease.

Because periodontal diseases are also potentially associated with other systemic diseases, your dentist could then flag this for your GP to check up on and monitor as well. Later, when you visit your GP, they can pull up your dental records and notes, and enact early preventative measures as needed.

What is the potential impact of this approach?

This ideal scenario is happening in small pockets with very select medical and dental practices, but large-scale change requires greater partnership and economic incentives across the system.

  • For patients: Integrated insurance and health systems offerings would increase access to care (especially financially), ensuring they are able to visit a dental professional on a regular basis instead of for emergencies – meaning, less intensive, costly treatments are needed. Plus, having the power to share their data with a variety of healthcare providers seamlessly without additional costs not only reduces the barriers to being more involved in their personal health but can also improve health outcomes for the long term.
  • For dental and healthcare providers: By prioritizing preventative care and routine check-ups, dentists can build longer-term relationships with their patients. Dentists are also able to maximize chair time with patients, helping build greater awareness of proper dental care to potentially decrease the number of invasive, emergency treatments later. Additionally, with dentists connected to larger networks of care with interlinked data, it enables more comprehensive proactive care for patients across the healthcare continuum. This would reduce the number of patients upfront who enter the system with preventable health complications.
  • For health insurance providers: Including dental care as part of basic insurance packages would help drive down the increasing cost of care overall, as a greater focus on prevention could reduce the cost of treatments in the future. There are also greater opportunities to incentivize preventative care, offering financial incentives for people who brush regularly, visit their dentist and GP regularly and participate in proactive health education – all driving down the cost of healthcare intervention.
  • For employers: With more of their workforce having access to affordable dental coverage, this would ensure better physical health for employees who wouldn’t need to take as much time off for dental incidents. Additionally, this would give their employees greater mental and financial security knowing they don’t have to choose between work and going to the dentist if an oral health issue arises.

The impact of good oral health on managing and preventing systemic health issues rose to the forefront last year with the WHO’s resolution, but it’s up to all of us, collectively to leverage this momentum to drive long-term improvements. We could first start with shedding the legacy mindset that oral healthcare is supplemental but instead fully integrating it into people’s preventative health journey, global health systems and payer economics – resulting in a net positive for us all.