Unlock More Smiles: How to Enhance Oral Health Communication for Health Plans

8/21/2023 Cindy Thomas

Unlock More Smiles: How to Enhance Oral Health Communication for Health Plans

Atul Gawande, a prominent American surgeon, writer, and public health researcher, writes, “Scrupulous dental care can help avert tooth loss, but growing old gets in the way.” Oral health is a major part of overall health. According to the Cleveland Clinic, poor oral health is associated with heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic diseases. 

Medicare Advantage members need every advantage possible to prevent the normal effects of aging. Health plans recognize this and now proactively offer oral wellness kits that contain electric toothbrushes and educational information for plan members.

Unfortunately, despite its somewhat obvious importance, too many people are not getting the oral care they need. Research has found that 30% of U.S. adults have not been to the dentist since the pandemic started. Additional oral health data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows:

  • More than 1 in 4 U.S. adults have untreated dental cavities
  • Nearly half (46%) of adults 30 and older have signs of gum disease
  • 13% of youths ages 5 to 19 have untreated tooth decay

While not the only drivers behind these numbers, a lack of awareness of the benefits of oral health as well as cost and coverage uncertainties do play a role. Through a more thoughtful approach to member education, health plans have an opportunity to make a more meaningful difference in member well-being.

6 ways to better communicate the benefits of oral health to your health plan members

Whether through new benefits, addendums or general awareness, we’ve noticed more health plans showing interest in oral health. This is excellent and a trend we hope continues. But it also begs the question: How is this information effectively communicated to a member to actually unlock a healthier smile?

If you’re looking for an answer, start with the following tips. 

1. Make it easy for members to find and understand information about oral health 

Oral health can be a complex topic that produces unwanted anxiety. (To that point, research shows 42% of U.S. adults have dental anxiety.) To skirt the complexity and diminish any apprehension, effective communication must mean simplified information that’s presented in a clear and easily understandable format. 

Use plain language, avoid medical terminology whenever possible, and provide examples or visual aids to ensure the message you are trying to send is more accessible to members. This exercise in simplification can help health plans empower their members to make informed decisions about their oral health.

2. Tailor your message to your audience 

Always consider the member and tailor content and visuals to the intended recipient. For example, if seniors make up a large number of your member population, you’ll want to specifically address the oral health needs of older adults. For younger members, the emphasis would be placed on preventative care.

Additionally, priority No. 4 of the new CMS Framework for Health Equity requires health plans to offer “culturally tailored services.” 

We can all agree that one size does not fit all when it comes to communicating oral health benefits. Your member base is diverse. Diversity requires targeted messaging. By understanding member demographics, needs, and preferences, health plans can deliver better outcomes for those who need it the most. A personalized and culturally relevant strategy can fit into your health equity program, which is highly important for at-risk members who might be hesitant to go to a clinic.

3. Tap into a wider variety of communication channels

To reach a specific member audience, health plans should consider leveraging a variety of communication channels to convey oral health messages. While traditional methods like mailers and brochures still prove relevant, digital platforms such as email newsletters, social media, and your health plan’s mobile app can engage members effectively. 

These digital channels can drive members to interactive online tools — such as oral health risk assessments or appointment reminders — that are solely designed to enhance member participation and promote a sense of personal investment in their oral health journey.

4. Deliver what’s important in an unexpected way

To encourage an effective cleaning experience for health plan members, oral health care kits can serve as an unexpected yet thoughtful way to support their oral health needs. As a stepping stone towards better oral hygiene practices, these kits can encourage individuals to seek dental care and reinforce the message that prioritizing this will positively impact their overall well-being.

Oral wellness kits present an opportunity to foster member relationships. What goes in a care kit can include a combination of any or all of the following:

  • Toothbrush
  • Mouthwash
  • Educational materials
  • Teledentistry info
  • Flouride toothpaste
  • Tongue scraper
  • Suger-free gum
  • Reusable storage case
  • Dental floss
  • Dental mirror
  • Oral analgesic gel
  • Benefits highlights

One thing’s for sure: there are a lot of moving parts when it comes to executing a wellness kit like this. Work with a partner who understands and fully supports the entire lifecycle:

  • Compliance 
  • Print, packaging, and label production
  • Sourcing and inventory management
  • Order capture through multiple channels
  • Multichannel fulfillment
  • Reporting and analysis

5. Collaborate with other organizations who share the same goal

Partnering with other organizations that are focused on oral health — e.g., American Dental Association, National Dental Association — can help you increase the reach of your oral health message to a much wider audience. A collaborative partnership can foster a number of positive outcomes:

  • Marketplace credibility
  • A visible commitment to member well-being
  • Increased member trust and confidence
  • Enhanced accuracy of information shared with members

6. Emphasize the financial upside of better oral care 

What are the specific links between oral health and overall health? A health plan’s goal should be to connect these dots. However, the financial upside to improved oral care is not something to gloss over. 

“It’s too expensive” is a leading factor for avoiding the dentist. Yes, medical treatments can be expensive. This opens the door for health plans to:

  • Highlight the financial benefits and savings associated with oral health coverage
  • Promote preventive care as a means of avoiding expensive dental procedures in the future
  • Communicate information about coverage options, co-pays, and cost-sharing arrangements to ensure that members are aware of the value they receive from their health plan
  • And last, but not least, bring to light the fact that avoiding oral healthcare will only lead to more expensive health problems and medical procedures down the road

Convey the importance of oral health to your members

Gawande reports, “By the age of 60, Americans have lost, on average, a third of their teeth. After 85, almost 40%  have no teeth at all.” Oral health is an integral part of overall well-being throughout our lives, yet it often gets overlooked in the broader conversation about healthcare. 

We believe that health plans have a unique opportunity to bridge this gap and educate their members about the importance of oral health. By implementing any or all of the communication strategies noted above, health plans can help empower their members to take proactive steps towards maintaining brighter smiles and healthier lives. 


Cindy Thomas is the Director of Business Development for RRD Healthcare Solutions.

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