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Consumer site taps data to estimate which states have healthiest teeth and gums Date: 03/16/18

Jill Gonzalez

By Mary Otto

A state's oral health status represents an interesting indicator of the overall health and economic well-being of its people. On a personal and population level, oral health is not achieved in a vacuum. Many factors play a role in ensuring the good oral health, from the availability and cost of professional dental services to access to nutritious food and optimally fluoridated water. Shortages of dental providers, high rates of smoking and sugar-sweetened beverage consumption can take a toll. So, can the lack public or private dental benefits, water fluoridation and school sealant programs. 

The stakes are high for individuals and for the states where they live. Healthy teeth play a crucial role in nutrition, communicating and job readiness. Oral pain inhibits educational achievement and worker productivity and drives up emergency room costs. 

Assessing and ranking the oral health of states represents a formidable task. But for the second year in a row, a consumer finance website has taken on the challenge. In this Q and A, WalletHub analyst Jill Gonzalez offers insights into the metrics used and the data crunched to create WalletHub's 2018 States with the Best & Worst Dental Health report.

Gonzalez also shares some wisdom on how reporters might use the report card to take a new look at oral health in their state.

Q: When and why did WalletHub decide to focus on dental health as a kind of economic indicator for states and the nation as a whole?

A: We first released the report in 2017. We considered it an important topic, since dental health has such a significant effect on earnings and job prospects, in addition to general well-being.

Q: How did you identify the criteria you used to rate the states?

A: Our methodology was developed in conjunction with academic experts, who helped to establish the 25 key metrics most representative of the overall dental health of a state. The data was collected from official sources, such as the U.S. Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and many more.

Q: Regarding access to dental services, your report looks specifically at adult and adolescent dental visits in the past year. Do your ratings also reflect the availability of oral health care for children?

A: Yes. The School-Based Dental Sealant Programs metric considers the presence or absence of school-based dental sealant programs provided for children.

Q: You used data from a variety of sources to reach your conclusions. Can you tell us about some of the data sets that were most helpful and how you used them? 

A: All of the data sets were helpful. That being said, some metrics were given a greater importance. For instance, the Dental Treatment Costs (collected from Healthy Grid), the Poor or Fair Oral Condition and Pain Due to Oral Condition (both from the American Dental Association) metrics have double weight, since the costs and the oral condition of a state's population were considered the most important indicators of dental health.

Q: This year’s report card was not WalletHub’s first look at this issue. Did anything surprise you about this year’s findings?

A: There were no big surprises about this year's findings when compared to last year. The top states with the best dental health remained roughly the same (for instance, Minnesota ranked first and Wisconsin second both years), and the same can be said for the bottom-ranking states. In the latter case, though, there is some variance. For instance, last year's worst state, West Virginia, moved up the ladder to being 48th, and Mississippi, from ranking 47th last year, fell to the last place."

Q: Do you have any wisdom to share with journalists who might use this report card to zero in on the oral health needs in their states or communities?

A: The most important driver of great oral health in a state is the policies that support adequate oral hygiene. Namely, whether dental care is made accessible through a considerable number of lower-cost, government subsidized options for the public, and whether it is included as basic coverage in all health insurance policies.