How SMILE Health is Accelerating Oral Health Accessibility, Equity, and Medical-Dental Integration
Published: May 8, 2024

By Katie D’Amico, VP of Growth & Innovation at CareQuest Innovation Partners


The science is clear: Oral health has a significant impact on overall health. Multi-disciplinary experts continue to publish on the strong link between oral health and life-altering conditions like heart disease and diabetes. And yet, the way we access, deliver, and pay for oral health care is largely separate from the rest of the health care system. Far too many people do not get the care they need and experience worse overall health outcomes. So, what do we need to do differently to fix this “wicked problem ” ?

We need innovation to bridge the gap between what we know — poor oral hygiene is the “root” of many costly health challenges — and what we do, which is often neglecting oral health within the broader healthcare landscape. Increased investment and support for innovative solutions that advance oral care access not only unlocks the potential to transform preventative care pathways, but also enables health systems to consider the “whole” health of a person.

This is core to why CareQuest Innovation Partners launched the SMILE Health program: to accelerate solutions that transform health care, inclusive of oral health, to become more accessible, equitable, and integrated. As the SMILE Health program enters its third year, this mission continues to be the backbone of our program.


Increasing Access to Care

Improving access to care can take many forms — from bringing forward new treatments to rethinking how care is delivered. Making preventative care more accessible not only improves health outcomes but also dramatically reduces costs. Recent data shows that we spend more than $3 billion annually on emergency department visits for non-traumatic dental conditions — costs that could be avoided with more innovative ways to connect people with routine oral health care. Solutions like Kare Mobile’s same-day scheduling and Biolectrics at-home periodontal disease treatment offer novel, low-cost ways to get people the care they need. Technologies like these hold the potential to significantly reduce the burden of disease and keep people out of emergency rooms.

When it comes to care delivery, companies like MouthWatch and Grin are prime examples of how oral health innovation is helping to increase access to care through teledentistry, bringing care to patients vs. patients needing to be brought to care. Emerging technologies and solutions like these naturally face certain challenges around market and consumer adoption. The SMILE Health program helps startups with similar obstacles tackle them and advance their roadmaps through studies with industry partners. The findings also provide third-party validation that can help to de-risk investments for potential funders, while also enabling startups to identify new potential markets, customer segments, and applications of their solution.


Creating a More Equitable Health System

Everyone deserves access to quality health care, and as the for-profit subsidiary of the CareQuest Institute for Oral Health, CareQuest Innovation Partners is deeply committed to elevating health care solutions that will impact those who have been historically left behind by our health care system. There is plenty of research that reveals the inequities that exist today, often correlated to income or race.

41% of Black health care startup founders said they bootstrapped their company, while less than 25% of white and Asian founders said the same. It is critical to foster inclusivity across the startup community to effectively address and meet the needs of an increasingly diverse patient population – research shows that diversity in health organizations significantly improves the care experience for patients. Therefore, engaging a deeper sense of representation among the SMILE Health program, and the larger healthcare system, is a top priority.


Integrating Medical and Dental Care to Improve Outcomes

Breaking down siloes in health care as a means to improve outcomes isn’t a new concept, but one that takes time and coordination across many stakeholders to make happen. Given the significant systemic health linkages to oral health, the potential impacts of closing the medical and dental divide are massive from an economic and public health perspective. Advancing novel solutions to enable a more integrated health care system is key to SMILE Health’s mission. For example, wearable diagnostics like Effective data sharing increases integration between medical and dental care and enhances patient well-being and empowerment.


Elevating Emerging Players and Transforming Overall Health

With reach and access to hundreds of innovative startups globally, the SMILE Health program opens doors for meaningful collaborations across health care to advance integrated health and de-risk investments in emerging innovation through validation studies and small pilots in real-world settings. SMILE Health empowers emerging startups and partners with the data, network, and resources to test and validate core areas of their businesses, while also helping build capital as an early-stage company.

With a robust ecosystem of SMILE Health industry partners and investors, startups can accelerate true impact with a shared vision to improve health outcomes through a more accessible, equitable, integrated health care system. As CareQuest Innovation Partners considers applications for this year’s cohort, we are excited to bolster our community with innovators committed to making health care better for all. Join us!

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