Dental dividends Featured

10:43am EDT November 18, 2004
As employers strive to control rising worker medical benefits costs, some are discovering a surprising ally in their efforts: their dental plans.

Long in the shadow of higher-profile health and welfare benefits, dental coverage is stepping into the spotlight both as an agent of better employee health and a mechanism for preserving precious benefits dollars.

It's a little-known fact that inadequate dental care swallows up untold billions of dollars in productivity all across American industry. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than 164 million hours of work are lost each year due to employee dental disease or dental visits.

And for employees who are parents, the numbers are even more alarming. More than 51 million school hours are lost each year due to dental-related illness, which can translate into one or both parents leaving work, or staying home to attend to their children's needs.

When it comes to calculating the costs to productivity and the strain that untreated oral disease can have on your benefit plans over time, the math isn't hard to do. But what is less understood is the impact that certain diseases, which may initially manifest in the mouth, can have on your bottom line.

There is compelling research indicating a strong connection between chronic, long-term health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease and pregnancy complications, with the presence of oral disease and infection (see chart).

Teeth tell tales

While the medical evidence is still mounting, it is believed that 90 percent of systemic diseases -- those affecting many parts of the body -- also manifest themselves in the mouth. In fact, some researchers believe that the bacteria from oral infections can spread throughout the bloodstream and contribute to disease in other parts of the body.

This means that Americans -- and, in particular, employers -- need to adopt a broader view of the importance of dental care and the roles of dental care providers. Dentists can be the catalyst in the prevention, early detection and treatment of potentially deadly diseases that go far beyond the mouth.

The good news is that most periodontal disease is easily diagnosed and treated through routine dental care. But, without regular dental visits and proper dental treatment, periodontal disease can go undetected and can lead to serious, long-term health implications and a lifetime of significant medical costs.

So it's not enough to simply offer dental benefits; employers must encourage workers to use their coverage by ensuring that they understand the benefits of good dental health as well as the more far-reaching quality of life improvements they may enjoy.

For employers who have not taken the step of sponsoring a dental benefit -- or those who have noticed a drop-off in participation in their existing plans -- this would be a good time to take a fresh look at how a dental plan can help to keep employees healthy, productive and, yes, even smiling.

Mark Hanrahan is vice president of sales and service for Aetna's north central west region. Reach him at (312) 928-3104 or