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Laura Dorr is the executive editor of DPR's Modern Dental Network.
Traditionally, medicine and dentistry have been considered distinctly different fields, with medicine taking precedence over dentistry. However, with a better understanding of oral disease – and how it can affect the rest of the body – insurance programs and the medical system need to catch up.
The separation between the two fields is nothing new; historically, they have been seen as inherently different. This extends back to the dental profession’s humble beginnings in barbershops, when, until the 1800s, barbers doubled as dentists, pulling teeth and performing bloodletting. Because of the often painful and gruesome procedures, the field was not regarded as sophisticated, instead falling into the shadow of its more refined medical cousin.
With the current understanding that dental health can greatly impact overall wellness, it is thus surprising that dental care is still often shunted to the side and overlooked. While programs like Obamacare and Medicaid have greatly expanded opportunities for medical care, approximately 130 million people in the U.S. have no dental insurance – and neither Obamacare nor most Medicaid plans have dental care as a required benefit. Generally, only children and, in some cases, pregnant women receive dental coverage under Medicaid, leaving many people without proper oral care.
“There are states that will not even provide relief of pain or treatment of active infection just because it’s between the nose and the chin,” Burton Edelstein, a professor of dental medicine and health policy at Columbia University, told The Atlantic. He believes that the disconnect between medicine and dentistry “has been a lasting, physiologically, medically, morally, and ethically inappropriate separation.”