From Toothache to Health Crisis

Friday, May 25, 2012 - 5:56am

Joint Effort Produces Report on Dane County's Epidemic-Scale Oral Health Crisis & Solutions

Oral health problems have a huge impact on overall health. Untreated tooth decay and gum disease are not only painful, but are also associated with diabetes, heart disease, stroke and low birth weight babies.

The Oral Health Coalition of Dane County, in cooperation with Public Health- Madison and Dane County (PHMDC), is releasing a major report on this oral health crisis.

In 2010, in Dane County, there were more than 11,000 visits to emergency rooms, urgent care centers or primary care clinics for dental pain. Not only is this an expensive and inappropriate use of medical resources, most often it provides only temporary relief from pain and does not address the underlying cause of the problem. The cost for the emergency room visits alone exceeds $1.6 million per year but does not provide needed dental treatment. Dane County mirrors a national trend where there has also been an increase in the number of hospital emergency room visits for preventable dental conditions across the United States, according to a recent Pew Center report.

This is only part of the problem. In addition:
• In Dane County, over a thousand middle school students and almost 2500 high school students reported being absent from school during the past year due to tooth or gum pain. (Dane County Youth Assessment.)
• In a select group of over 700 Dane County adults surveyed (aged 60 and older), nearly one fourth reported dental problems severe enough to make eating difficult.
• Rates of emergency room visits and school absences due to dental pain were significantly higher among the African American and Hmong populations.

Joe Parisi, Dane County Executive stated, "Working together as a community we can prevent these troubling statistics on oral health," said Dane County Executive Joe Parisi. "This is an issue that affects the wellbeing of residents in many of Dane County's communities and we cannot afford to ignore it."

According to Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, "We fully understand that there are thousands of families without insurance to assure regular dental care," said Madison Mayor Paul Soglin. As we work to strengthen our neighborhoods, our school system and our community, any effort we can make to improve dental health will help as we move forward."

According to Janel Heinrich, Interim Director of PHMDC, "If we were applying these same numbers to the outbreak of a communicable disease, we would be declaring an epidemic. It is very important to consider oral health a component of one's overall health status and develop comprehensive strategies to improve access to care".

The report that is being released today (May 25, 2012) was started in 2010, as a collaboration between PHMDC and the Oral Health Coalition of Dane County. The mission of the coalition is to improve oral health through prevention, education and increased access to dental care for people of all ages in our community.

According to Tobi Cawthra, Meriter Health Services and president of the Coalition, "One of our major challenges is creating better access to dental care for vulnerable, high risk populations."

Dr, William Bird, President of the Dane County Dental Society stated that "Plans are underway to bring together health care providers and the dental community to develop strategies to better address the short and longer term needs of these under served populations. The Dane County Dental Society feels strongly that dentists must play an active role in the coalition since they are in a position to understand, diagnose, and treat oral diseases. Dentists understand that we can't solve this problem alone, nor can these issues be fixed by legislative entities without the dental community on board."

For a copy of the report, including data and recommendations, see


Public Health - Madison & Dane County & the
Oral Health Coalition of Dane County


  • Jeff Golden(608) 243-0302