Ross Matthews 1 article

If you asked your employees what’s more important—healthcare or dental—what would their answer be? The odds are in favor of healthcare. But isn’t the mouth part of the body? Based on this view, medical and dental wouldn’t be separate disciplines; they’d be integrated.

So, what does this mean for an organization like yours? For many, it means taking a deep dive into the benefits they offer employees.

Does it make sense to keep medical, dental, pharmacy, well-being and other benefits under separate companies? Should any of these services be bundled? What are the pros and cons of this approach? These are just a few of the questions being asked by companies as they look to reduce overall healthcare costs and improve employee health.

Studies show healthy teeth matter for overall health

Several studies have come out that further connect dental care to a person’s overall health. For example, research has been done connecting diabetes and gum disease, heart disease and most recently researchers are investigating the impact of gum disease on patients suffering from COVID-19.

“There’s a large and rapidly growing body of research that indicates a strong correlation between oral health and a person’s overall health. The more physicians and dentists work together in their approach to caring for patients, the more likely it is to improve outcomes while also reducing overall costs,” said Mark Jurkovich, DDS Research Investigator at HealthPartners.

HealthPartners is at the forefront of this perspective. For years, HealthPartners has brought together dental care, dental plan design and research. Just recently there has been a greater emphasis on research.

HealthPartners has created the new Center for Oral Health Integration under the HealthPartners Institute, which brings together oral and overall health to support both research and patient care.

Patient data also plays a role in supporting overall health. An integrated medical and dental electronic health record provides clinicians with a “storyboard” that includes key information such as vitals, health directives, preventive health needs and upcoming visits.

Patients benefit from integrated medical and dental health records

Electronic health records are an area Dr. Jurkovich knows well. He’s the chair of the American Dental Association SNODENT (Systematized Nomenclature of Dentistry) Maintenance Committee. SNODENT is a special vocabulary used for electronic health and dental records.

Dr. Jurkovich commented, “Integrated patient records that include all current medical and dental information remain very rare in the U.S. HealthPartners is one of just a handful of organizations that uses them. These integrated records allow both physicians and dentists to work from the most up-to-date patient information and help improve patient outcomes together.”

Evidence-based dental plans affect patient outcomes

As Dr. Jurkovich pointed out, it’s been shown that an integrated model could reasonably improve patient outcomes and reduce overall costs.  The article, “Creating systems aligned with the triple-aim and value-based care,” from the Journal of Public Health Dentistry, shows how the team at HealthPartners is working to improve dental care at lower costs with its integrated model.

The model includes dental plan designs. In general, HealthPartners works to better support our members by designing plans that align benefits with members’ needs based on evidence-based research.

As an example, studies have shown that there is a connection between gum disease and those living with diabetes. According to the research, gum disease in the mouth affects blood sugar, making it harder to control diabetes. That may result in more doctor visits, an increase in medications, or worse—hospitalization.

Knowing the impact on these members, HealthPartners dental plans include MouthWise Matters: an enhanced benefit for people with diabetes who are at risk of gum disease. MouthWise Matters the result of an integrated approach to care that factors in evidence-based research.

Looking ahead: How far can medical and dental integration go?

Integrated approaches to care and coverage still have work to do. “In this era where machine learning and artificial intelligence are playing an increasingly critical role in improving a patient’s medical care, in general dentistry is struggling due to its inability to easily obtain medical information and apply it to a patient’s needed oral health care,” said Dr. Jurkovich.

However, while the majority of dental insurers today can’t link medical or even dental risk to patient care, “HealthPartners has been a pioneer in this field,” according to Dr. Jurkovich.  “And the organization has consistently shared its findings from research and its integrated programs to improve oral health with the healthcare community.”

As an example, HealthPartners was one of the first organizations to join the Wisconsin Collaborative for Healthcare Quality (WCHQ), through which it first to report dental quality measures as part of the Wisconsin Collaborative for Healthcare Quality (WCHQ). HealthPartners has also worked with the American Dental Association’s efforts to build a large data registry to help identify possible treatment approaches.

The good news is that organizations are continuing to move forward, research best approaches and work collaboratively toward common goals.

Integrated care and your organization

What does all of this mean for you?

Partnering with an organization that takes a more integrated approach to health care, such as HealthPartners, ensures not only a healthier workforce but a boosted bottom line. When health care costs go down, insurance payouts go down – and so do employer premiums.

There’s a reason more organizations are moving in this direction, decreasing costs, increasing quality of care and reducing administrative confusion.


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