Commentary: Most people know that routine dental visits and preventive care can fend off more serious, and costly, future problems. But oral health is about more than just the mouth; there is a connection between oral health and serious medical conditions.

Preventive dental care is terribly important to overall health, and over the last few years, that’s come to the forefront. The dental benefit is as much about total body health as is medical. Comprehensive and periodic dental exams, in many cases, can help detect the first signs of diabetes problems, eating disorders, high blood pressure, and possible cardiovascular disease.

These conditions can be chronic and costly to both an employee’s health and an employer’s bottom line. Research finds that employees with dental insurance are more than three times as likely to visit a dentist as those without it.

So as companies look to redesign their voluntary benefit menus to reflect the needs of their workforce, they’re also considering the link between oral health and overall health.

Here are a few reasons why dental benefits are fast becoming part of many employers’ larger wellness strategies.

Dental pain

As anyone who has experienced it knows, dental pain can be excruciating. Pain from a toothache can be intense enough to be incapacitating, especially when there’s an infection.

Dental problems mean lost work time, and they can be a pain in the wallet, too. One study found that losing a tooth results in an annual earnings loss of $720 a year. Another, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that oral health problems led to 164 million lost work hours a year.

Employees could save money and lose less work time — as well as reduce suffering — by getting timely care. A cavity can normally be treated on a lunch hour, but if you ignore it, it becomes a different story. If people don’t get to the dentist soon enough, infection can set in, causing swelling, tissue damage, and can even lead to sepsis.

Disease management and health care costs

Research has shown that people who have gum disease are almost twice as likely to have heart disease. The same bacteria that cause inflammation in periodontal disease have been found to cause inflammation in vessels where plaque gets trapped, increasing the chances of cardiovascular disease and stroke. And while there is no cause/effect correlation, early detection of gum disease offers an opportunity for timely intervention — and prevention — of what possibly could be serious, and costly, heart problems.

Gum disease is also a known complication of diabetes. If the diabetes is uncontrolled, patients will be at greater risk for severe periodontal disease. Conversely, treatment of gum disease may improve the control of diabetes and reduce the rate and severity of complications.

In fact, studies show that diabetes and heart disease patients who treat their periodontal disease have lower medical costs and fewer hospitalizations. For cerebrovascular or cardiovascular disease, health care costs were between 10% and 40% lower.

Overall health

Oral health is an important part of maintaining good overall health. Integrating dental care into a company’s larger wellness strategy makes sense for the health of its current workforce, as well as the talent it’s looking to attract.

In fact, dental benefits that focus on prevention, early detection and education are so highly desired by employees that they are the most requested voluntary benefit, even when employers do not contribute. Dental insurance also encourages preventive care visits, which in turn helps reduce lost work-time due to critical dental health issues.

Dean M. Fry, DDS, is Humana’s chief dental officer.

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