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IOM workshop examines oral health literacy

February 26, 2013

By Craig Palmer, ADA News staff

Washington—Limited oral health literacy is associated with inaccurate knowledge about preventive measures such as water fluoridation, dental care visits and oral health-related quality of life, the policy advisory Institute of Medicine said in a report. “For example, nationally only '44 percent of adults with less than basic health literacy skills had a dental visit in the preceding year compared with 77 percent of those with proficient health literacy skills'.”

“The public and health care providers are largely unaware of the basic risk factors and preventive regimens for many oral diseases,” said the report on an oral health literacy workshop featuring presentations by invited ADA and other dental professional speakers. “For example, the fact that dental caries is both infectious and preventable is not generally known by the public and most health care providers. The relationship between good oral health and well-being is also not well understood.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), in a keynote address on the importance of oral health literacy, quoted his mother, a former sharecropper with a very limited education, as saying “There is nothing like a person who don't know what they don't know.” In the context of oral health literacy, there is much work to be done to let people know what they need to know, he told workshop participants. Families need to be educated about the importance of oral health and have access to dental services.

The definition of oral health literacy adopted as ADA policy in 2006 and cited in the IOM report is “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate oral health decisions.” Association policies acknowledge that limited health literacy is a possible barrier to oral disease management and that effective communication skills are essential to the practice of dentistry.

The National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine is an adviser to the federal government by congressional charter and, on its own initiative, identifies issues of medical care, research and education. The March 29, 2012 IOM Roundtable on Health Literacy “was interested in exploring findings from oral health literacy research and how such findings are being translated into oral health practice as well as the intersection between oral health literacy and health literacy.”

The Feb. 21, 2013 workshop summary Oral Health Literacy contains the opinions of presenters but does not reflect the conclusions of the Institute of Medicine. The IOM cited roundtable sponsorship from Aetna, the Agency for Heathcare Research and Quality, the American College of Physicians Foundation, America's Health Insurance Plans, GlaxoSmithKline, the Health Resources and Services Administration, Humana, Johnson & Johnson, the East Bay Foundation (Kaiser Permanente), Merck and Co., Inc., the Missouri Foundation for Health and the UnitedHealth Group.