Dental care should be part of basic health care for all Canadians, particularly for the lowest-income groups, according to a new UBC study.
Researchers surveyed 567 clients from four primary health care clinics in Ontario and British Columbia that served significant numbers of low-income and Aboriginal residents. Almost half (46 per cent) of participants rated their oral health as fair to poor, and roughly the same number (44 per cent) said they sometimes or often experience pain in their teeth and mouth.
“Those numbers are three times higher than the general Canadian population as reported by the Canadian Health Measures Survey–clearly, the people we interviewed face tremendous oral health issues,” said UBC nursing professor Annette Browne, who led the study.
Participants may even have underestimated the extent of their dental problems, said Browne. Researchers observed that many of those who reported fair or passable oral health were already missing many of their teeth, making it difficult for them to eat a full range of foods.
“Those clients may have downplayed their dental issues, most likely because they were already dealing with other health or social issues stemming from limited incomes,” observed Browne.
Many of the participants were struggling with existing health conditions, such as chronic pain and hepatitis C, or with mental health issues like anxiety and depression. A high proportion were living on very low incomes: one in four had used shelters in the previous year, and seven out of 10 were receiving social assistance or disability benefits.
These findings highlight the need for affordable dental services for some of Canada’s most economically disadvantaged groups, according to co-researcher and UBC PhD graduate Bruce Wallace.
“Many low-income groups have no dental insurance or have only public dental health benefits, and therefore they’re highly likely to forego dental work due to costs and other barriers,” said Wallace.
“No one should have to depend on charitable dentistry or volunteer dental clinics. We need to integrate oral health benefits within universal health insurance and consider offering dental care in alternate health care settings, such as community health care centres,” added Wallace.
The study was conducted as part of EQUIP, a five-year research program led by Browne and colleagues from other universities, which looks at enhancing health care access for vulnerable populations. Click here to read the full results.