In one case, a cancer patient was losing weight because his treatments were hurting his oral health. Once his teeth were pulled and he was fitted for dentures, he gained 10 pounds. In another, getting dentures helped lift the self-image of a 20-year-old unemployed woman, who subsequently found a job.
Those stories, shared by Greg Nycz, executive director of the Family Health Center of Marshfield (Wis.), a collection of community health centers in the state, are testament to the idea that oral health and medical health are inseparable. For the most part, the U.S. healthcare system treats them otherwise, but some providers are going against the grain and seeing profound benefits for patients.
The Family Health Center of Marshfield, for instance, contracts with the Marshfield Clinic Health System to provide dental and medical care. The process of expanding dental care hasn't been simple, but since 2002, those clinics have seen 135,905 patients, many of whom struggled for years to get care for their teeth and gums.
The Marshfield Clinic, a large medical practice that also operates hospitals, first weighed providing dental care after the U.S. surgeon general published a report in 2000 describing the lack of access to dental care as a “silent epidemic” that primarily afflicts the poor. The report called for “an effective health infrastructure that meets the oral health needs of all Americans and integrates oral health effectively into overall health.” Poor oral health has been linked to heart disease, diabetes and a spate of other health problems.
In early 2002, Nycz met with the Marshfield Clinic's leaders, and they agreed Marshfield needed to provide dental care. Their first dental clinic opened in November that year in Ladysmith, a town of about 3,000 in northwest Wisconsin. The patients who flocked there from all over the state confirmed the broad trends researchers have found: Rural areas are more likely to have shortages of dental providers, and the frequency of dental visits aligns closely with socio-economic status.