Spokane Journal of Business

Good health should include quality dental care

Poor oral conditions said too common in Spokane

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The SmileMobile, a mobile dental clinic, made a recent visit to Spokane. Sponsored by Washington Dental Service Foundation and funded by Delta Dental of Washington, the SmileMobile travels around the state providing low-cost care to those unable to access dental care.  

As part of Teeth Week, held annually in October, Smile Spokane partnered with The Salvation Army and members of the Spokane District Dental Society to deliver dental care on the SmileMobile. In most areas, the SmileMobile serves only children and pregnant women, but in Spokane, local dentists volunteered to provide free care to adults.  

Smile Spokane grew out of a partnership of community leaders, advocates, and agencies concerned about the oral health of our community. It’s determined to work as a community to prevent oral disease and improve our overall health.

Unfortunately, in too many of the recent adult cases, the only option was to extract teeth. One patient had extensive decay and was in so much pain that he had 11 teeth removed. Another woman, only 46 years old, had 12 teeth pulled.   

Poor oral health is a persistent problem in Spokane. One in four adolescents and adults haven’t visited the dentist in the last year. And that’s bad news for business. That means potentially 25 percent of an employer’s workforce could have undetected oral health conditions that affect their overall health.

Performing their job duties—and sometimes even showing up for work—is difficult for employees who are in constant pain because of a throbbing tooth-ache. Employee performance issues, absentee-ism, and health problems increase the cost of doing business and affect a company’s bottom line.

That’s why many businesses, community organizations, and individuals are partnering with Smile Spokane. We are raising awareness that oral health matters and that more needs to be done to prevent oral disease. The focus on oral health is important because people are healthier with a healthy mouth.

Besides affecting people’s ability to do their job, the lack of routine dental care leads to more expensive complications and unnecessary, costly emergency room visits. When people don’t get care frequently, prevention takes on a new urgency. 

Consider these facts from the Spokane Regional Health District:

•Forty percent of Spokane children have experienced dental decay by kindergarten; 57 percent by third grade.

•Over 30 percent of adults have lost one or more teeth due to decay, and 5 percent have lost all their teeth.

•Eight percent of adolescents never have seen a dentist.

•One-third of seniors are missing all their teeth; half have not seen a dentist in the last year.

Those sobering statistics should concern all of us. Oral health affects overall health. Inflammation and infections in the mouth can cause or worsen problems elsewhere in the body. Diabetes, heart disease, and stroke are all linked to gum disease. Severe cavities can be painful and make it difficult to eat, sleep, and function well in school and on the job. Poor oral health also affects quality of life. If you’ve ever had a toothache, you know how excruciatingly painful it can be.

Children from lower-income families especially are vulnerable to tooth decay. That health disparity can have a lasting impact on their ability to succeed. Severe cavities make it difficult for children to play and learn.  

But it isn’t just children who are affected. The oral health of older adults needs to be a priority too, especially given the number of baby boomers. Gums can recede with age, exposing roots to multiple cavities. Without strong teeth, adults can’t eat the nutritious foods needed to stay healthy. Plus, here’s a surprise for many pre-retirees: Medicare doesn’t cover dental care. 

More than 2 million Washington adults are covered by Apple Health (Medicaid). Many are lower-income workers, including restaurant and retail employees, students and recent college graduates. Yet unfortunately, fewer than 23 percent of those Apple Health insured adults received dental care last year, largely because Washington has one of the lowest reimbursement rates in the country. 

One reason we have significant oral health problems is that Spokane is the largest city in the state without enough fluoride in the water to help prevent cavities. Seventy-five percent of Americans on public water systems have sufficient fluoride to prevent cavities; Spokane does not.  

As a community, we all benefit when people are healthy. That’s why, through Smile Spokane, local organizations are working together to improve oral health. Partners include Providence Health Care, the Spokane Regional Health District, Empire Health Foundation, Spokane County Medical Society, Spokane District Dental Society, and many others. As a health hub for the state, Spokane should be a leader and employ proven approaches to improve health. 

Keeping people healthy is less expensive than treating problems after they occur—and it’s the right thing to do. Our employees, neighbors, parents, and children shouldn’t suffer from preventable disease. Plus, prevention saves money for individuals, businesses, families, and taxpayers. 

So, while we all should do our best to take care of our mouths by practicing good habits at home daily, access to fluoride and dental care also should be priorities. This is the goal of Smile Spokane: to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to stay healthy and thrive.  


Nick Velis, DDS, is president of the Spokane District Dental Society Foundation and chairman of Smile Spokane. Jerrie Allard is the partner liaison for Smile Spokane.

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