Oral health is important for health and wellbeing, and for identity and self-esteem, insists Georgios Tsakos, Professor in Dental Public Health at University College London.
I’m sure it does but a Public Health England report written with UCL researchers shows there are stark inequalities in oral health and access to dentists and dental services in the UK.
These inequalities encompass people with disabilities, ethnic minority groups and vulnerable people such as the homeless.
The report focuses on the persistent inequality gap in oral health between the least and most deprived, which has been widening over time. Children, in particular, are suffering.
Inequalities in tooth decay, for example, between the most and least deprived five-year-olds have risen between 2008-2019 in England.
The UCL research team revealed inequalities spanned a wide range of oral health issues and not only for dental decay but also for tooth loss, oral cancer and the impact oral health can have on people’s quality of life. Dental attendance is one of the areas where inequalities are widest. For example, 39% of five-year-olds from lower social class backgrounds see the dentist only if they have symptoms, compared to 25% of five-year-olds from managerial and professional class families, who are more likely to have routine check-ups.
Just as worrying is that vulnerable groups, which include homeless people, prisoners and travellers, have considerably poorer oral health than average, possibly due to the fact they face difficulties simply accessing dental care. Dr Anja Heilmann of UCL Epidemiology & Public Health said: “This important report charts the extent of oral health inequalities in the UK. It shows that there is abundant evidence for stark inequalities in relation to material and social disadvantage.
“Inequalities also affect those with protected characteristics, such as minority ethnic groups and people living with disabilities. The report highlights the urgent need for more and better quality data on the oral health of vulnerable groups such as people experiencing homelessness.”
Professor Richard Watt, also of UCL Epidemiology & Public Health, concluded: “Taking action to reduce health inequalities, including oral health, is a matter of urgency, especially in light of the evidence on widening health inequalities in the last 10 years.
“Joined up action across the NHS, local government and national policy is needed to promote oral health equity.”
And no doubt these inequalities have worsened during the Covid pandemic with its lockdowns and self-isolation periods.