Cori Tucker would like to see doctors checking teeth and pediatricians giving kids fluoride treatments.
Angie Stone said patients might soon see a dental hygienist at the cardiologist’s office.
Tucker, dental clinic manager at Beloit Area Community Health Center, said new state rules allow dental hygienists to teach medical professionals to administer basic oral health care in their practices. She wants to teach pediatricians how to apply protective fluoride varnish to prevent oral health problems early in children.
Stone, owner and founder of HyLife Oral Health Alliance, said dental disease increases the chances of heart attack or stroke.
Tucker hopes changes in state statutes will help bridge the gap between the medical and dental worlds.
The Beloit Area Community Health Center plans to expand its dental services thanks to changes that allow dental hygienists to perform services in a broader range of settings, Tucker said.
Dental hygienists in Wisconsin can now practice in nursing homes, hospitals, medical clinics, adult day care centers, prisons and nonprofit dental programs, according to a news release from office of Rep. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie.
The new rules will primarily affect people who struggle to receive dental care because they lack insurance, lack transportation or have medically compromised immune systems, Tucker said.
Hygienists had been limited to practicing in schools, public health departments and dental offices, Tucker said.
Tucker plans to expand the Beloit Area Community Health Center dental services. Now, her hygienists work in the clinic, schools and the Head Start program, but Tucker wants to eventually reach people in nursing homes, pregnant women and pediatric offices.
The changes were approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor in June.
Dental hygienists perform preventative care but cannot fix teeth, Tucker said. Hygienists’ services include gum health care, oral hygiene education and cleanings.
Hygienists will refer patients to dentists for additional work, Tucker said.
Mouth and body connection
Oral health concerns affect more than the mouth, Stone said.
People with uncontrolled periodontal disease, a disease of the gums and bones, are 50 percent more likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke, Stone said.
Mouth bacteria have been found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease, Stone said. Arthritis can also worsen if the mouth is inflamed from gum disease.
Hygienists at Beloit Area Community Health Center give preference to children, pregnant women, diabetic patients and patients who are medically compromised, Tucker said. Oral health complications can bring additional health problems to those populations.
Patients may start seeing hygienists at the cardiologist’s office or other specialty health services, Stone said.
“We all know the mouth is connected to the body,” Stone said. “A healthy mouth can really keep the rest of us healthy, and an unhealthy mouth can lead to other big problems.”
The Health Equity Alliance of Rock County identified oral health as one of its health priorities in its 2017-2020 Community Health Improvement Plan.
Tucker, a member of the alliance, said access to dental care has been a concern since she started working as a hygienist 21 years ago.
Dental health providers are in great need in Rock County, Tucker said. Providers who accept Medicaid or BadgerCare are in highest demand.
Because of the changes in state statutes, more people will have access to dental care than ever before, Tucker said.
“We don’t want any barriers to care, economic status, race, anything,” Tucker said.
“Their inability to receive this care is putting them at a disadvantage for their future. When you start seeing hygienists go out and make the dental world bigger, we’re allowing for them to feel like they’re getting the general care everyone else is, that is more accessible to them.”
Bill in motion
Hygienists at HyLife Oral Health Alliance, Edgerton, were ready to expand services as soon the bill passed, Stone said.
HyLife offers oral health care for elders in skilled nursing facilities and community based residential facilities, Stone said.
Before the bill, hygienists at HyLife provided only oral care services in limited settings, Stone said. Now they provide a complete prevention program.
Stone has tailored her company to provide comprehensive care for elders, she said. Hygienists are also certified caregivers and certified dementia practitioners.
“(We are) keeping people dental healthy for their entire life,” Stone said. “Some of my clients I have seen since 2013 for oral care and are not having any dental trouble. Families we serve are definitely seeing their loved one is staying healthy.”