OBJECTIVES: To quantify racial and socioeconomic status (SES) disparities in oral health, as measured by tooth loss, and to determine the role of dental care use and other factors in explaining disparities.
DATA SOURCES/STUDY SETTING: The Florida Dental Care Study, comprising African Americans (AAs) and non-Hispanic whites 45 years old or older who had at least one tooth.
STUDY DESIGN: We used a prospective cohort design. Relevant population characteristics were grouped by predisposing, enabling, and need variables. The key outcome was tooth loss, a leading measure of a population’s oral health, looked at before and after entering the dental care system. Tooth-specific data were used to increase inferential power by relating the loss of individual teeth to the disease level on those teeth.
DATA COLLECTION METHODS: In-person interviews and clinical examinations were done at baseline, 24, and 48 months, with telephone interviews every 6 months.
PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: African Americans and persons of lower SES reported more new dental symptoms, but were less likely to obtain dental care. When they did receive care, they were more likely to experience tooth loss and less likely to report that dentists had discussed alternative treatments with them. At the first stage of analysis, differences in disease severity and new symptoms explained tooth loss disparities. Racial and SES differences in attitudes toward tooth loss and dental care were not contributory. Because almost all tooth loss occurs by means of dental extraction, the total effects of race and SES on tooth loss were artificially minimized unless disparities in dental care use were taken into account.
CONCLUSIONS: Race and SES are strong determinants of tooth loss. African Americans and lower SES persons had fewer teeth at baseline and still lost more teeth after baseline. Tooth-specific case-mix adjustment appears, statistically, to explain social disparity variation in tooth loss. However, when social disparities in dental care use are taken into account, social disparities in tooth loss that are not directly due to clinical circumstance become evident. This is because AAs and lower SES persons are more likely to receive a dental extraction once they enter the dental care system, given the same disease extent and severity. This phenomenon underscores the importance of understanding how disparities in health care use, dental insurance coverage, and service receipt contribute to disparities in health. Absent such understanding, the total effects of race and SES on health can be underestimated.