- Private sector’s role required in ensuring access for needy communities
Socioeconomic oral health disparities refer to differences in oral health outcomes and access to dental care based on individuals’ social, educational and monetary status. These disparities are significant public health concerns and have far-reaching consequences on the individuals’ general health and well-being. Reducing these disparities is essential for obtaining equitable access to oral health care and improving the general welfare of populations across various socioeconomic backgrounds.
A Pathfinder survey has been conducted in Pakistan that gives comprehensive data regarding the prevalence, severity and age-wise distribution of the various oral conditions predominant in the population. According to this study, tooth decay and gum disease are the most prevalent ailments among dental diseases. The customary use of betel but and gutka is very common and socially accepted in the rural and urban areas of Pakistan. Its link with precancerous oral illnesses including submucous fibrosis, leucoplakia, erythroplakia, mouth blisters and traumatic ulcers has been established. Transformation of these lesions into oral cancer is not uncommon among young and adolescent chewers. This is of great concern not only because of the high cost involved in their management but the morbidity and mortality associated with them.
The rising western influence on the lifestyles and dietary habits of people of Pakistan owing to the mushroom growth of electronic media has resulted in an increased incidence of incapacitating diseases like diabetes, arthritis and cardiovascular disorders. These diseases are common risk factor for tooth decay and periodontal disease. Unfortunately, the healthcare system of Pakistan seems to have no policy basis to address these issues in the population.
One of the primary drivers of oral health disparities is differential access to dental care. Individuals with higher socioeconomic status are more likely to have dental insurance and the financial means to seek regular dental check-ups and treatments. In contrast, those with lower socioeconomic status may face barriers such as cost, transportation, or a scarcity of qualified dentist in their area. People with higher socioeconomic status can afford to have preventive treatments to save themselves from future tooth decay, gum disease oral cancer. They also have knowledge of oral hygiene practices far better than those with a low financial background. These preventive measures significantly reduce the risk of oral health problems.
Socioeconomic status also adversely influences dietary habits and lifestyle choices. The low-income sections of the population may possess limited access to healthy foods and be more prone to consume sugary and acidic foods and beverages, which enhance dental ailments. They are more likely to experience partial or total tooth loss as federal and provincial governments allow tooth extractions, at their health facilities, to the common man. The poor people suffer from edentulism for the rest of their lives as they cannot afford the cost of an artificial set of teeth. These disparities have a cascading effect on the quality of life and general health.
In Pakistan, the restricted availability of oral healthcare and the high level of unmet oral healthcare needs are well documented and demand the private sector to play its role. No doubt, the private sector can play a significant role in minimising existing socioeconomic oral health care disparities and enabling needy people to access dental treatment through various means.
People with high and moderate socioeconomic backgrounds can generously contribute to dental charities and philanthropic organisations that provide dental care to those in need. These donations can fund dental missions, free clinics, and other initiatives aimed at serving vulnerable populations.
Low-cost clinics: Private sector can establish programmes or dedicated branches that offer services at reduced costs to low-income individuals and families. This can involve providing discounted rates, sliding fee scales, or even pro bono services to those in need.
Insurance cover: Private insurance companies can design and offer affordable dental insurance plans tailored to low-income individuals and families. Additionally, they can provide flexible payment plans for dental treatments, making it easier for people to manage their expenses over time.
Telehealth clinics: Private dental practices can leverage telehealth technology to provide remote consultations and advice to patients who may have limited access to transportation or live in remote areas.
Employees welfare: Private companies can introduce dental wellness programmes as part of their employee benefits packages. These programmes may include preventive dental check-ups and education on oral hygiene, making dental care more accessible to employees and their families
Mobile dental clinics: Mobile units can be organized to reach underserved communities residing in distant areas and the deprived patients cannot reach the hospital because of exuberant transportation charges.
Community outreach programme: Private sector entities can engage in community outreach programmes to raise awareness about the importance of dental health and the available resources. This can help reduce the stigma around seeking dental care and encourage individuals to take preventive measures.
Research: Private dental research organisations can invest in research and development efforts to create more cost-effective dental treatments, materials, and technologies. This can lead to more affordable options for all patients.
Community-based clinics: Keeping the substantial burden of oral and dental diseases in view, it is the need of the hour for the private sector to design a model of community-based, self-sustaining, locally supported, effective and basic oral health care in the country.
These emphatic efforts can help ensure that needy fellow beings have better and easier access to dental treatment procedures that are not offered at public sector clinics and hospitals.