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Oral Health and the Law

posted on Mon, Aug 8 2011 10:40 am by Corey Davis

In February 2007 Deamonte Driver died because he couldn’t see a dentist. By the time the uninsured twelve year old was rushed to the hospital, an infection that had started in his tooth had spread to his brain. There was nothing doctors could do. While Deamonte’s death was so striking that it made the national news, lack of access to dental care and the poor oral health that results are widespread and often underappreciated problems.

Although most untreated cavities don’t result in death, they do cause a number of serious health problems including chronic pain, infection and gastrointestinal disorders. Cavities can also lead to lower academic achievement as kids stay home because of pain or stigma and, when they do make it to class, are distracted.

These problems are not new. In 2000, the Surgeon General released a report titled “Oral Health in America.” Citing the link between poor oral health and poor general health and the tremendous disparities in oral health along racial and class lines, the report called for a national partnership to work together to maintain and improve oral health and the oral health care delivery system.

Unfortunately, this does not seem to have occurred. Recent data shows that, while children aged six to 19 have fewer cavities now than they used to, those aged 2 to six actually have more. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that childhood cavities are the number one chronic disease affecting young children. According to the Washington Post, in 2005 (the last year for which data was available) only one third of Maryland children insured through the state Medicaid program had seen a dentist in the past year.

In July 2011 the Institute of Medicine released a report that sets forth strategies to improve access to oral health care for vulnerable and underserved populations. This report goes beyond previous efforts by not only cataloguing the scope of the problem but also putting forward specific recommendations for improvement. These recommendations include:

  • Integrating Oral Health Care into Overall Health Care
  • Creating Optimal Laws and Regulations
  • Improving Dental Education and Training
  • Reducing Financial and Administrative Barriers
  • Expanding Capacity


This is the first time that a report of this nature has specifically highlighted the role of law in affecting the risk environment for oral health. Following the path set by another recent IOM report, For the Public’s Health: Revitalizing Law and Policy to Meet New Challenges, the oral health report makes clear that good health is at least partly a result of changes made at the legal and regulatory level. That is as true in the realm of oral health as in any other.

This information was developed by Corey Davis, staff attorney, for the Network for Public Health Law – Southeastern Region at National Health Law Program.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.

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