People who don’t have dental insurance are more likely to delay going to the dentist than people who do have dental insurance. As a result, early signs of tooth disease may go undetected in the uninsured. Then when a medical or dental problem becomes major and the person is in enough pain, the uninsured tend to go to a medical emergency room rather than a dentist, where they can be assured of emergency care regardless of whether or not they can pay.
Perhaps as a result of this tendency to wait too long and then go to a medical emergency room, the number of hospitalizations from serious complications of dental infections, and even deaths from dental disease, are on the rise. According to a recent study, between 2000 and 2008 more than 60,000 people were hospitalized for periapical abscesses, a condition that develops in untreated tooth decay in which the tip of the tooth’s root becomes seriously infected. Sixty-six patients died from complications of the condition. That’s unfortunate, because periapical abscesses are less likely to occur in persons receiving regular dental care. In addition they can be treated effectively by root canal therapy or tooth extraction when diagnosed early enough.
Hospitals have no choice but to write off emergency room care given to patients who cannot pay. What this means is that a lack of access to dental care (because of a lack of insurance or an inability to pay) may be driving up the cost of charity medical care instead. And people are dying needlessly. It’s worth thinking about when we discuss universal access to health care – what about dental care?