New study: improving oral care for people with chronic conditions can reduce costs for employers and improve health for employees

Oct. 10, 2013

Improving the oral health of people with chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes, asthma and cardiovascular disease, can reduce health care costs, according to a new study by UnitedHealthcare.
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The research showed that people with certain chronic conditions who received appropriate dental care, including preventive services and the treatment of gum disease, had net medical and dental claims that were on average $1,038 lower per year than claims for chronically ill people who did not receive that type of oral care. Among diabetics, the average annual net medical and dentals claims were $1,279 lower per person for individuals who received treatment for gum disease compared to people who did not. The savings for all of those groups were achieved even after accounting for the additional cost of the dental care.

The study’s results underscore the important connection between oral health and overall health. Researchers have shown a potential link between gum disease and an array of serious health conditions, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people with chronic conditions account for more than 75 percent of health care costs, so employers and health plans are increasingly developing strategies to improve the health of these individuals.

“This study demonstrates that employers can benefit from looking at their population holistically, and analyzing their medical and dental benefits collectively,” said Michael Weitzner, DMD, MS, vice president, UnitedHealthcare Dental. “By taking this approach, companies can take steps to engage employees around their dental health and improve health outcomes, potentially reducing health care costs and driving productivity with a healthier workforce."

Many employers are starting to embrace this integrated approach. Employers enrolled in UnitedHealthcare’s Bridge2Health program provide their workers dental and medical benefits, combined with additional wellness support and resources, to provide patients and health care professionals with information that improves decisions and outcomes.

A total of 165 companies representing more than 850,000 plan participants have already selected this approach for dental and medical benefits.

Among the study’s other findings:

  • Total average medical costs were lower across all chronic conditions for people who received periodontal treatment or cleanings compared to those who did not receive such services, even after accounting for the costs of additional dental treatments.
  • People with chronic conditions who received regular cleanings (at least three times during the three years) had the lowest health care costs of any other dental treatment group (i.e. infrequent cleanings, no cleanings).
  • The savings were also significant for people who received regular dental care, but were not compliant with the recommended care for their chronic medical condition. Among the group receiving dental care, annual average medical costs were $2,320 lower than those not receiving dental care, with net savings of $1,829 after accounting for the cost of the dental care.

The study’s results were based on three years (2008 to 2011) of dental claims data associated with more than 130,000 plan participants enrolled in both UnitedHealthcare employer-sponsored dental and medical plans. The results were split by medical condition, as well as by whether or not people were compliant with managing their chronic condition, thereby minimizing compliance bias from the study.

The study was a joint effort between UnitedHealthcare, a leading health benefits company, and Optum, a leading information and technology-enabled health services business.
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