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Every month, Wellable asks a single question to the large, growing, and dedicated community of human resources and wellness professionals subscribed to the Wellable Newsletter. The question for November was about an area of health and well-being often ignored or underserved by employee wellness programs.
Is oral health part of your wellness program strategy?
A small majority (56%) of employers currently include oral health as part of their employee wellness program, which indicates a significant number of employees are not being educated on or rewarded for healthy behaviors tied to oral health. This can have a tremendous impact on employee health and productivity (more on that below).
Although not represented in the responses to the Pulse Check survey, the degree to which an employer includes oral health into their wellness program may vary. For some employers, it may be limited to educational resources on oral health, and for others, it could mean encouraging employees to get a regular dental checkup. Based on the adoption of these types of initiatives in Wellable, most employers are not building comprehensive strategies for oral health into their employee wellness programs.
In most programs that “address” oral health, employers are not encouraging employees to engage in daily behaviors related to dental hygiene. For example, many employees may go to the dentist for a checkup while not brushing their teeth twice a day with fluoride toothpaste or flossing daily. According to a study by Delta Dental, 31% of Americans fail to brush their teeth at least twice a day, with two percent admitting to not brushing at all. Similar to routine physical activity or eating well, effective oral health requires regular and consistent behaviors, not just visiting a dentist twice a year.
Oral Health And Overall Well-Being
In addition to the direct impact from poor dental hygiene, such as bad breath, gum disease, and tooth decay, oral health also influences the overall health of a person. The mouth is full of bacteria. Although most of the bacteria is helpful or harmless, some can be harmful, and these harmful bacteria often thrive in individual’s with poor dental hygiene. As the entry point to the digestive and respiratory systems of the body, a mouth full of harmful bacteria can lead to a number of diseases not associated with teeth. Studies show that poor oral health can be linked to diseases such as endocarditis (infection of the inner lining of the heart), other cardiovascular disease, pregnancy and birth complications, and pneumonia. Also, poor oral health can make the impact of diseases, such as diabetes, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer’s, worse. Employers often launch employee wellness programs to improve the overall health of their employees, but by ignoring or underserving oral health, they are significantly limiting the impact that can be made.
If the research is not enough, employee perception of their overall well-being improves with good oral health. According to a survey, people who visited the dentist in the last year were 22% more likely to rate their own physical and emotional well-being as being good or better, compared to those who didn’t.
Oral Health And Productivity
Poor oral health can result in gum disease, tooth decay, tooth loss, and dental abscesses that often require emergency dental appointments to fix. When employees don’t prioritize oral health, treatment of these dental issues, which usually are addressed during the work week, result in 164 million work hours are lost yearly. This does not account for the lost productivity that occurs while employees struggle with pain and symptoms leading up to the diagnosis and treatment, which hampers productivity and focus when at work. Combined, the economic loss for employers from poor oral health can be staggering.
Oral Health And Financial Health
Health insurance and dental insurance are quite different. Health insurance plans that meet Affordable Care Act (ACA) standards are required to have out-of-pocket maximums. This means that in a given plan year, the health plan will pay 100% of all covered health care costs for the rest of the plan year after an employee hits the stated out-of-pocket maximum. Dental insurance plans, however, usually have maximum coverage benefits, which means that after an employee receives the maximum benefit, they will be responsible for the remaining amount due. This does not put a cap on the amount an employee could owe in a significant dental event. Just under half of dental insurance PPO plans, which are the most common plan, have a maximum annual benefit above $1,500, while the rest are capped at less than $1,500.
With gum disease treatments costing up to $10,000, the financial health of employees can be significantly impacted with poor oral health, even if they have dental insurance. With more and more organizations focused on financial well-being, the case for including a comprehensive oral health strategy within an employee wellness program is strong.