WEDNESDAY, July 13 (HealthDay News) -- More than 33 million Americans live in areas with too few dentists to meet their needs, and millions of children and retirees lack access to good oral health care because they can't afford it, a new report finds.

"Persistent and systemic" barriers continue to block many Americans' access to dental care, the report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and the National Research Council (NRC) has found. And poor oral health can have dire consequences, the expert panelists said.

"The consequences of insufficient access to oral health care and resultant poor oral health -- at both the individual and population levels -- are far-reaching," Frederick Rivara, chair of the committee that wrote the report, said in an IOM/NRC news release.

"As the nation struggles to address the larger systemic issues of access to health care, we need to ensure that oral health is recognized as a basic component of overall health," said Rivara, who is also Seattle Children's Guild Endowed Chair in Pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

According to the report:

  • 33.3 million people reside in areas where there aren't enough dental health professionals to meet the population's needs;
  • In 2008, 4.6 million children went without needed dental care because their families lacked the financial means to pay for it;
  • In 2006, almost two-thirds (62 percent) of U.S. retirees did not have dental health care coverage (Medicare does not cover dental health).

As the experts noted, deteriorating dental health can have broader consequences for overall well-being. For example, poor oral health has been linked to heightened odds for respiratory illness, heart disease and diabetes. Rates of inappropriate use of emergency services also rise for those with poorer dental health.

So what is to be done? The panel urges that Medicaid benefits that cover dental care be extended to adult Americans covered by the program, not just children as is the case today. Reimbursement rates for dental health care providers should also be increased, and administrative practices streamlined.

To ensure that more practitioners enter and stay in the field, states should also pass legislation that makes it easier for hygienists, dental assistants and others to practice to the full extent of their training in a wide range of settings, the experts said.

As well, more needs to be done to recruit dental students from minority, rural and lower-income populations. Residencies should also be encouraged in areas that are traditionally underserved by dental professionals, the report added.

More information

For more on ensuring your oral health, visit the American Dental Association.