New research studies are suggesting that improving the health of a worker’s gums could reduce the cost of caring for the rest of the worker’s body.
Carriers such as Aetna Inc., CIGNA Corp. and Dentegra Group Inc. are trying to spread the word that simply encouraging some workers’ to get their teeth cleaned 3 or 4 times a year, instead of 2 times a year, could help down or even cut medical expenses related to diabetes, premature birth and coronary artery disease.
“Every day, we uncover more information about dental treatment patterns and the connections between oral and overall health,” says Dr. Jed Jacobson, a senior vice president at Delta Dental of Michigan, Ohio and Indiana, Okemos, Mich.
Representatives for the dental carriers themselves warn against hyping preliminary research results that still face years of rigorous scientific scrutiny.
The exact relationships between oral health and general health “are not yet clearly understood,” says Jeff Album, a spokesman for Dentegra, San Francisco, the parent of the Delta Dental plans in California, New York and other states. “The correlations are not causal at this point.”
The producers trying to sell dental benefits say they are not quite sure how to use those findings to persuade employers to add new dental plans and improve the benefits in existing plans.
“There are correlations between dental health and general health, no doubt about it,” says Renny Thomas, executive vice president and managing general underwriter at Dentafits Inc., Palm Springs, Calif. “But you’ve got two overlapping risks. We’re underwriting a different kind of risk.”
But, if the dental health researchers are right about the link between dental and general health, and Americans act on that knowledge, the results might have a big effect on medical care.
Dr. Steven Offenbacher, a researcher at the University of North Carolina, has led a team that has estimated that gum disease may be responsible for about 50,000 premature births and billions of dollars in extra medical bills in the United States each year.
Dr. George Taylor, a researcher at the University of Michigan, is leading a team that has reported that simply offering 4 teeth cleanings per year to individuals with diabetes helped some of those individuals improve blood sugar control enough that they could stop taking insulin.
Some public health experts have asked whether results for the general population apply to workers who have had good health and dental benefits, or whether the results apply mainly to the many Americans who have no dental coverage.