Reducing Health Disparities and Connecting Chronic Care: Industry Leaders Reveal How Startups Can Make an Impact  
Published: June 18, 2024
Our health care system falls short of meeting everyone’s needs. CareQuest Innovation Partners’ SMILE Health program wants to change that by bringing together a network of mission-aligned industry partners to identify, validate, and accelerate innovation across the industry. This year’s program is centered around three focus areas, the first being our core mission: to foster a more accessible, equitable system for all, which we covered in a recent blog post. To go deeper on our other areas of focus – connecting chronic conditions with oral health and reducing disparities through oral health – we spoke with industry partners from Henry Schein, Cigna Healthcare, DentaQuest and Colgate-Palmolive to understand how they are taking action to drive impact and what opportunities they see for innovators. Here’s what stood out from our conversation:  

Enhancing chronic condition management through oral-systemic care 

It’s projected that 170 million Americans will live with at least one chronic condition by 2030. At the same time, we’re seeing mounting evidence that chronic conditions are linked to oral health – over 90% of systemic diseases have oral health manifestations, including heart disease, maternal health, and diabetes. Improving access and adherence to preventive oral health interventions can improve overall health management and help prevent and mitigate the impact of chronic disease. 

To better address this, David Kochman, chief corporate affairs officer at Henry Schein, shared how the company is approaching the development of more deeply integrated care model in four key ways: 

  1. Driving regulation: Lobbying campaigns and partnering with various coalitions to create awareness around the need to advance regulatory and reimbursement models for oral health care. 
  2. Improving infrastructure: Investing in oral health solutions that expand point-of-care testing, ultimately reducing costs, and improving efficiencies and patient comprehension. 
  3. Advancing workflows: Leveraging integrated health care workflows to educate patients on their holistic health and providing practitioners across the medical and oral health continuum the same visibility into patient health records through health care record interoperability. 
  4. Changing clinician behavior: Industrializing the process for physicians and dentists to partner closely to get better care for their patients. 

On the payer side, Dr. Cary Sun, chief dental officer of Cigna Healthcare, points to improvements in health benefits as another way to reduce barriers to chronic condition care: 

  • Reducing barriers to care: Cost is a major obstacle to oral health care for those managing chronic disease. Cigna created programs to remove certain cost barriers for these patients to help improve access and outcomes. 
  • Integrating health data: Working with medical partners and pharmacies to identify members with chronic conditions and engaging them in programs to address chronic condition management. 
  • Targeted engagement: Leveraging integrated health information to identify members who are not receiving regular dental care and reaching out to them to educate them on the importance of routine oral health care. 

As Dr. Sun and Kochman express, there’s much potential across the health care, entrepreneurial, and investment landscape when it comes to bridging the medical-dental divide to better treat chronic conditions. Here is what they say entrepreneurs and investors can do to address the market need at the intersection of oral health and chronic disease:  

  1. Empower the patient: Taking a patient perspective enables innovators to better understand patient attitudes and behaviors – ultimately creating new personalized care models. 
  2. Leverage AI: Embracing the ability to compare patient data against large data pools will give us more information so we can make more informed decisions. 
  3. Invest in home health care: Connecting home health habits – like how often someone brushes their teeth – back to the individual care team allows them to track adherence post-dental or medical appointments, and maps back to insights that empower the patient to take control of their health. 
  4. Break down silos: Integrating care across the health care continuum will ensure dentists, providers, patients, and insurers are considered as solutions are created.  
  5. Considering health care barriers: Hurdles to care, from clinical issues to social determinants of health, impact the way solutions are developed and delivered.  

Fueling patient action through education to address health disparities  

Across the health care system, gaps in care access and oral health awareness have led to high costs for patients and providers alike. Not only does this worsen disparities in underserved populations, but it also weakens other critical areas of a person’s health. For example, in maternal health, care inequities have posed major barriers to improving outcomes on a national scale. When it comes to oral health, poor oral hygiene has proven to exacerbate underlying medical conditions like heart disease – the leading cause of pregnancy complications in the United States. Lessening complications through access to oral health interventions like regular dental cleanings can make all the difference, especially among people of color – fewer than half of pregnant women nationally have their teeth cleaned, and Black women are 14% less likely to get their teeth cleaned than white women.  

Kamila Chytil, chief operating officer at DentaQuest, pointed to how critical collaboration with providers is to address this problem. According to a BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth study, pregnant women whose medical provider promotes oral health are twice as likely to report having had a dental visit. Strengthening this collaboration can take many forms, including: 

  • Working with managed care organizations and other health plans to expand reach. 
  • Bringing mobile dental services to high-volume medical days or clinics. 
  • Providing education on oral health competencies for primary care providers (PCPs)  including prevention, assessment and risk factor identification. 
  • Formalizing dental care referral processes with referral forms and regular referral treatment forms, including providing mock prescription pads that encourage providers to make referrals to patients for dental care. 

Formal programs can also help to reduce these disparities. DentaQuest’s Smiling Stork Program works with physicians, dentists, and community organizations to provide pregnant individuals with education about dental benefits, screenings for gum disease, and setting babies up for good oral health. Chytil noted, “We found implementing that program with members in Colorado led to a 24% increase in dental utilization among our pregnant members. So there’s a lot of opportunity here to get better.”  

For Colgate-Palmolive – whose products are in 60% of homes – health advocacy and increasing oral health literacy is key to addressing health disparities. The company’s Know Your OQ online tool helps inform people about their oral health, the risks they face, and preventative measures they can take to improve their health. Looking at the results of the program, Dr. Maria Ryan, EVP and chief clinical officer at Colgate-Palmolive said, “We found in populations that take the quiz, it changes their knowledge, attitudes, and practices…It helps, and it makes them advocate for better health.”  

Both Dr. Ryan and Chytil suggest the following for innovators looking to collaborate with industry partners: 

  1. Focus on data-driven solutions: Startups are often equipped to bring such solutions to market at an accelerated rate.  
  2. Emphasize convenient care technology: Solutions, like oral health applications and telehealth, are top-of-mind to help optimize communication and enable people to participate in their care.  

As CareQuest Innovation Partners’ SMILE Health program looks to accelerate oral health solutions that bring mission-aligned innovation to market faster, startups are uniquely positioned to drive impact, especially for underserved populations and those with chronic conditions. Shaping innovation to advance patient empowerment, make oral care more convenient, and streamline connections between clinicians, payers, and patients will be essential for startups to transform the care ecosystem and improve health outcomes across the globe. 

Interested in hearing CareQuest Innovation Partners’ discussion on how innovation is bridging the gap between oral and overall health? Watch the recording here and learn more about the 2024 SMILE Health accelerator program today.  

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