Oral Health Equity for Minority Populations in the United States

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Along with the Oxford Bibliographies in Public Health article “Dental Public Health,” this article hopes to achieve the objective of reconnecting the mouth to the rest of the body of public health on this platform. Other commissioned bibliographies on evidence-based pediatric dentistry and global oral disease will follow, so this guide will focus primarily, but not exclusively, on adult populations in the United States. While improved nutrition and living standards after World War II have enabled certain population groups to enjoy far better oral health than their forbearers did a century ago, not all Americans have achieved the same level of oral health and well-being. Indeed, people are much more likely to have poor oral health if they are low-income, uninsured, and/or members of minority populations or other high-risk groups who do not have access to oral health care. Oral health equity for minority populations is a social justice issue, and it rightly belongs in the purview of public health. To achieve this goal, it is necessary to address the root causes of current inequities. These include poverty and the increasing gap between the “haves” and “have nots”; maldistribution of resources within society, including oral health care services; racism and other forms of discrimination; weak laws or lack of enforcement of laws protecting human rights; and disenfranchisement of groups from the political process. While evidence-based strategies to prevent dental caries (including fluoride use and dental sealants) have been known for decades, dental caries remains a prevalent chronic disease across the lifespan in the United States and around the world. This situation is both infuriating and tragic, since dental caries is a highly, if not entirely, preventable disease. As a step forward, it is essential for public health to reclaim oral health as part of its mandate. The division between oral health and health writ large is reinforced by the fact that dentists, dental hygienists, and dental assistants are separated from other health care professionals in virtually every way: where they are trained, how their services are reimbursed, and where they provide oral health care. If and when US society is able to ensure respectful and accessible health care that includes comprehensive oral health care to everyone regardless of race/ethnicity, socioeconomic position, age, gender, sexuality, immigration status, or geographic location, it will move closer to achieving oral health equity for minority populations. Partial support for M. E. Northridge was provided by a grant from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research and the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research of the National Institutes of Health (Integrating Social and Systems Science Approaches to Promote Oral Health Equity, award R01DE023072).
Original languageEnglish (US)
Number of pages17
JournalOxford Bibliographies in Public Health
StatePublished - Jan 11 2018


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