The largest study of its kind recently completed by United Concordia Dental, its parent company Highmark and the University of Pennsylvania shows that treatment for gum disease and ongoing maintenance can decrease the cost of medical care for people with diabetes. This confirms a large body of medical and dental literature that emphasizes the association between diabetes and periodontal disease.
While the exact physiological mechanism is still being studied, the localized inflammation caused by periodontal disease is believed to contribute to the adverse blood sugar levels in a diabetic. These findings clearly demonstrate that, when individuals with diabetes receive treatment for gum disease, significant annual reductions in hospitalizations (33 percent), physician visits (13 percent) and overall medical costs ($1,814) are possible.
The study analyzed data over three years from nearly 1.7 million individuals with both Highmark medical coverage and United Concordia dental coverage to determine the effects of proper periodontal care. When you look at the study's sheer size and scope, as well as its statistical significance, it is clear the results are no fluke -- when individuals with diabetes have their periodontal disease treated, it not only helps them become healthier, it also helps them and their employers save money.
In response to the study's findings, United Concordia developed UCWellness, a new dental program designed to give individuals with diabetes and their employers additional benefits and additional savings. UCWellness is the first dental program to integrate a member engagement and education component, as well as 100 percent coverage for periodontal surgery benefits that some individuals need to treat their disease.
UCWellness provides a means to cut annual medical costs for individuals with diabetes and their employers by thousands of dollars. And since the program itself costs only a modest amount per employee, it takes only a few participants to offset the initial cost and effectively return money to an employer.
For example, assuming that roughly 10 percent of 2,000 covered people are diabetics, it would take only about half a dozen employees with diabetes reducing their medical costs to pay for the entire cost of the UCWellness program. We believe this is a good practice for all insurance carriers and the dental industry to embrace.
Treating chronic health conditions such as diabetes is very high cost; dental disease is preventable at much lower cost. To employers, the idea of saving money while adding insurance benefits is understandably counterintuitive, but the improved health of company employees and the cost savings are too great to ignore.
Today, 25.8 million individuals in the United States have diabetes -- double the number in 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And that number continues to grow at a startling pace.
This latest study by United Concordia and Highmark highlights the importance of connecting oral health to overall health. The diabetes findings represent the first in a series of studies likely to suggest how dental treatment and maintenance might lower medical expenses for various chronic medical conditions. Similar methodologies will be employed to examine the impact of treating periodontal disease in individuals who have experienced pre-term births or who suffer heart disease or stroke.
If we can mirror the diabetes study with other diseases, we may be able to show that treating gum disease can ameliorate a variety of health problems and produce further cost savings. Over the coming months, look for more findings from United Concordia.
James Bramson, DDS, is chief dental officer at United Concordia and a former executive director of the American Dental Association.