Technological advancements, COVID-19 pandemic pressures and growing evidence about oral health’s connection to overall health have accelerated the pace of change in the dental insurance industry in recent years. At the same time, more companies are expanding into new product markets, further driving innovation in the dental benefits space.

Edward Shellard

As these developments influence how dental care is paid for, insurers are reimagining the way they do business to better serve consumers. Here’s a look at four trends altering this changing landscape.

Oral and overall health 

The importance of good oral health care goes beyond the mouth itself; evidence shows it may lead to better overall health throughout a person’s life. A growing number of studies have found an association between gum disease – which about 47% of Americans aged 30 years and older experience in some form – and systemic conditions such diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease. These findings point to the significance of regular preventive dental care and oral disease management, and the need for greater understanding about how the health of the mouth affects the rest of the body.

To elevate oral health and overall wellness, some insurers are taking a more holistic, personalized approach to dental insurance. Many dental plans are now offering extra benefits and programs to members with certain medical conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, that can increase the risk of oral health problems. Along with these enhanced care offerings, education and training resources provided by dental plans about the mouth-body connection also emphasize healthy habits and preventive care to support improved overall health outcomes.

Medical-dental integration

With the knowledge we now have about the oral-systemic connection, integrating dental into medical care and conversations about overall health is more critical than ever. Increasing communication and coordination between dentists, physicians and other providers is crucial for medical-dental integration and has real implications for improving patient care and health outcomes. The sharing of electronic health records that merge medical and dental histories is one solution making it easier for patient data to be passed on to all clinicians.

On the insurance side, there is potential for medical-dental integration to help prevent more complex and costly services, close gaps in care and deliver better health outcomes. These advantages are driving insurers to support this interdisciplinary approach through products, benefits and educational solutions that emphasize the integral connection between oral and overall health. Partnerships between dental plans and other health care organizations, and academic and research institutions that are specifically focused on addressing the divide between medicine and dentistry, are also prompting closer integration of medical and dental care.

Bundled insurance products

Market, regulatory and technological pressures are changing how dental coverage is purchased and delivered. A growing trend across the health and dental insurance industries is bundling – or packaging health and dental benefits together. A survey of dental and health plans across the country found 46% of dental respondents foresee bundling benefits, and 54% expect to partner with a health insurer by 2025.

Bundling offers many benefits for consumers, brokers and employers. For consumers, bundled insurance products offer the convenience of a “one-stop shopping” experience. Brokers can strengthen existing relationships, build trust and credibility, and expand their customer base by cross-selling medical, dental, vision and other ancillary products. The advantages for employers include benefits packages that elevate employees’ overall wellness, the potential to save money by working with a single carrier, and streamlined enrollment and administration services.

Innovations improving dental care access

Americans still face numerous barriers to accessing oral health care. One major obstacle that can make it difficult for many people – even those with insurance – to find and receive dental services is an uneven distribution of dentists across the country. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, nearly 70 million people across the U.S. live in an area with a shortage of dental health care professionals.

To help reduce disparities in access to oral health care, the dental insurance industry has been adopting innovations that make it easier for patients to get the services they need. Teledentistry – one of the more significant trends emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic – is increasingly becoming an integral part of dental benefits with its ability to enhance care and education delivery through virtual visits when in-person appointments are not an option.

Insurers are also investing in mobile dental programs, which use portable dental equipment and mobile units to deliver low- or no-cost services to underserved populations and communities. And with research showing that a diverse dental workforce is associated with improving access to care, many dental plans are funding scholarship programs to encourage historically underrepresented groups to pursue careers in dentistry.

As the industry continues to evolve, dental plans must be open to shifting mindsets, exploring alternative approaches and considering different perspectives to meet consumers’ needs and expectations, tackle future challenges and achieve long-term, sustainable growth.

Edward Shellard, DMD, is the chairman, CEO and president of United Concordia Dental. Contact him at [email protected].

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