Don't leave oral health care for older people behind in the pandemic

  • dentist with patient
By
University of Tasmania
Vandana Bhagat (Centre for Rural Health) and Sunil Kumar
Issue
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We are all aware that the older population is the most vulnerable to COVID-19. Older people are at higher risk of developing severe illness from COVID-19 due to underlying medical conditions and  compromised immune systems. Evidence suggests that most mortality cases in Australia, as well as worldwide, were from the older age group. Therefore, it has become essential to take all necessary efforts to ensure the safety of the older population in this uncertain time.

There is a strong association between oral health and overall general health. Evidence is emerging showing the link between poor oral health and respiratory disease. One of the most frequently contracted respiratory disease by older people due to poor oral hygiene is pneumonia, especially for people living in nursing homes. As there are already high incidences of pneumonia among older people, therefore, subsequent infection by COVID- 19 can be fatal.

Several reports have shown that pneumonia rates in older adults could be significantly reduced by ensuring regular brushing. Therefore, it is important to ensure the oral hygiene of older people to reduce the risk factor of severe illness from COVID 19.

The delivery of oral healthcare to the older population in Australia has always remained a challenge due to the shortage of accessible and integrated oral health services, and it has become more challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic. Oral health services delivery in Australia has undergone several restrictions during COVID-19.

Though many restrictions have now been lifted, as COVID-19 projection is uncertain, therefore proper planning for preventive oral health services is required. The second wave of COVID-19 in Melbourne is a real example of uncertainty. Many people have also been affected financially during this pandemic. This may lead to less attendance at dental professionals  due to the typically high cost of dental treatment.

Therefore, health promotion officers should treat the promotion of preventive oral health services as an area for immediate public health action. Currently, there are only a few health promotion officers in Australia that focus on oral health. Public health leaders should recruit oral health promotion officers that will help in oral and associated systemic disease prevention. This can help in improving oral health care services access to older people in rural and remote areas. Oral health promotion officers can educate older people and their caregivers about the need to keep the mouth healthy.

Moreover, teledentistry should not be only focused on providing emergency consultations but also focused on promoting preventive oral health practices, especially for people in rural and remote areas. Dental professionals should collaborate with non-dental health professionals, including medical practitioners, nurses, health promotion workers, social workers, dietician, and caregivers to facilitate the effective, efficient, and equitable distribution of oral health services.  Oral health is a strong predictor of quality of life in terms of physical, social and psychological wellbeing; therefore it should be not taken as an isolated concern.

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