Improving Access to Dental Care

Sep 09, 2011

IOM report photo

Children's Dental Health  |  Contact: Matt Jacob, 202.540.6310

A recent report by The Institute of Medicine (IOM) reinforces the validity of eight policy benchmarks recommended by The Pew Children’s Dental Campaign to strengthen children’s dental health. 

The IOM report’s key recommendations are:

State legislatures should amend dental practice acts and other laws and regulations to remove unnecessary restrictions that are not evidence-based. Without these revisions, states may “miss critical opportunities to serve a greater number of individuals in need of care.”  The IOM concludes that dental assistants, hygienists, dentists and other providers can have overlapping scopes of practice and increase access “without compromising quality, safety or patient satisfaction.”  The report also urges states to permit technology-supported supervision that can facilitate care and expand access.

• States should explore ways to broaden the dental workforce, including “expanding the roles of existing dental professionals and developing new types of dental professionals.” About a dozen states are exploring new providers such as dental therapists and masters-level hygienists. The IOM found no evidence for any concern about the quality of care provided by these new types of dental providers.

• States should test—and federal officials should encourage—new approaches for spending Medicaid dollars more effectively.  For example, states may choose to target specific oral health benefits to high-risk groups with underlying health problems.  The IOM believes that including dental benefits for all Medicaid beneficiaries is a critical goal.

More than 16 million low income children in the U.S. go each year without seeing a dentist. Roughly 33 million Americans live in areas with dentist shortages that give them no reasonable chance of getting care, according to federal data.

The IOM report offers policy makers clear guidance.  By expanding access, states can improve residents’ overall health and quality of life, while reducing the need for costly treatments that increase Medicaid costs and cut into employees’ work hours.

Pew's Shelly Gehshan served on the IOM committee that produced this report. Newsweek magazine has called IOM’s reports “the gold standard for health-care policymakers.”  For a copy of this report on oral health, visit the IOM’s website.  Find out how the access problem differs from state to state by reading this Pew issue brief.

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