Achieving health equity is a growing priority among health care stakeholders. However, until recently, many efforts to achieve equity have been focused on increasing access rather than addressing specific inequities. This is particularly true in oral health, where major barriers to access such as limited insurance coverage and insufficient workforce capacity persist. As a result, the Center for Health Care Strategies (CHCS), with support from the DentaQuest Foundation, led the Advancing Oral Health Equity learning collaborative to help oral health stakeholder organizations examine the impact their programs have on oral health equity and develop targeted strategies for disparate populations.
Health Care for All (HCFA), a nonprofit advocacy organization focused on achieving high-quality, affordable, and accessible health care for all Massachusetts residents, was one of five organizations participating in the collaborative. By listening to community and stakeholder groups, as well as hearing stories through its Health Insurance HelpLine, HCFA has adopted an equity-based framework and approach throughout its work. It sees inequities in oral health care as a social justice issue, believing that the social determinants of health and the intersecting issues of racism and classism affect overall health and well-being. To learn more about HCFA’s approach, CHCS spoke to two members of HCFA’s oral health care team: Kate Frisher, oral health coalition coordinator, and Kelly Vitzthum, oral health policy analyst.
Q: What kinds of activities is HCFA doing to advance oral health equity?
A: We focus primarily on policy opportunities. One example is supporting legislation that would create a new type of mid-level dental provider, the dental hygiene practitioner, also known as a dental therapist. Dental hygiene practitioners can help fill gaps in access for communities that are most in need of dental services, including rural parts of Western Massachusetts, elderly communities, and low-income urban communities of color. We’re hopeful that this new model will become a reality in Massachusetts and will also work to ensure that mid-level providers will serve the people who need them most. It’s one thing to get a bill passed, but it’s not enough to just stop there.
Q: Which populations are you focusing your equity work on?
A: It’s really easy to just say, “We’re focusing on the Medicaid population,” and leave it at that without thinking about the sub-populations that exist within the broader set of Medicaid beneficiaries. We’re finding that the population with developmental disabilities as well as individuals who live in the rural areas of western Massachusetts are both having trouble with access to oral health care. Even just saying that we’re “narrowing down” our focus to western Massachusetts is obviously a bit of an oxymoron because it’s a huge region.
We also know that not having culturally and linguistically competent care is a big barrier to access in some places. We were really surprised to find that although there appear to be enough dentists who speak Spanish, severely lacking are dentists who speak Portuguese, the third most common language in the state. Thus, we identified Portuguese speakers as a potentially underserved group.
Q: Are there any obstacles to your oral health equity work?
A: The biggest obstacle is the separation of oral health care from the rest of health care. A lot of the oral health disparities could be alleviated if oral health care were better integrated into the health care system. We’re pursuing structural-level changes in the way that oral health care is financed and delivered to try to “bring the mouth back into the body.”
We also see diversifying the workforce to better represent Massachusetts residents as critical, especially when you look at who is going into the dental profession. Establishing more pathways into the oral health professions through outreach to minority students, recruitment of minority faculty, and targeted financial incentives such as loan repayment programs will help.
Q: How does HCFA plan to advance oral health equity in Massachusetts going forward?
A: Through the learning collaborative, we’ve highlighted an ongoing priority: oral health surveillance. There aren’t many oral health care datasets available, so we have identified collecting those data as one of our top priorities. We are also making sure that oral health is being addressed within Massachusetts’ new accountable care organizations. Ensuring that these new delivery and financing models establish equitable ways of providing care is a critical part of the implementation process. This is in line with a broader attempt to increase the prominence of oral health at the systems level.
Progression toward oral health equity will happen with interventions that address specific barriers identified at the community level. Health Care for All’s strategies to improve oral health data collection, diversify the dental workforce and improve cultural competency will increase the availability of oral health care for those whom need it most in Massachusetts — and may serve as a promising path for other communities across the country.