The Silent Epidemic of Oral Disease: Evaluating Continuity of Care and Policies for the Oral Healthcare of Seniors

Key Implications for Decision Makers

  • Health: Oral health has been overlooked as an essential component of overall health and quality of life.
  • The aging population: Seniors' oral healthcare will grow in importance as the number of Canadians older than age 65 continues to increase. More than any other age group, baby boomers have had dental insurance and good oral healthcare throughout their lives. This cohort will age with unprecedented retention of natural teeth. This has enormous implications for oral healthcare delivery systems.
  • Policy: Currently there is no infrastructure provincially or federally that is responsible for oral healthcare for seniors. Health Canada and provincial departments of health must provide leadership to address oral healthcare needs for Canadian seniors and develop oral health policies to ensure seniors have an adequate level of care, care providers receive proper training, and healthcare standards are standardized and universal across all care-giving sectors.
  • Collaboration: Governments must collaborate with many sectors (such as seniors, caregivers, dental and health professions, educators, health promoters, and so on) to ensure continuity of oral healthcare for the aging population.
  • Service delivery: Many seniors encounter challenges when accessing oral health services. Innovative mechanisms for service delivery to these groups must be developed and implemented.
  • Cost: The current fee-for-service, private practice delivery of oral healthcare does not ensure adequate service for all seniors. Many seniors cannot afford dental care and most do not have access to insurance plans. Creative financial solutions must be developed to include public and private mechanisms for payment.
  • Research: Understanding the current oral health status of seniors and the many factors affecting oral health over the lifespan will support the development of oral health promotion programs and disease prevention strategies.
  • Education: Seniors, caregivers, students, and health professionals must receive education and training that is specific to the oral health needs of the aging population.

Executive Summary


Oral health has a substantive effect on health and well-being; however, it is peripheral to general health and public healthcare delivery systems. The private nature of oral healthcare service in Canada contributes to profound disparities among many underserved segments of the population, including older adults. A lack of centralized, integrated decision-making about oral healthcare delivery makes it extremely difficult to improve oral health policy for seniors. A growing need for action on this important issue brought the partners in this project together.

The purpose of the research was to determine the key components of a health services model based on continuity of care that will improve the oral health of seniors, using Nova Scotia as the geographic focus. Key questions associated with managing continuity of healthcare for seniors included how is oral care for seniors currently managed and funded, and how well is it working; how can the system be more effectively restructured to improve the oral health of seniors; and what are the policy implications arising from these findings. The investigative team was comprised of researchers, clinicians, representatives of the private sector, government decision makers, dentists, and those in fields ranging from health promotion, public policy, economics, research methodology, dental hygiene, long-term care administration, data analysis, education, insurance provision, and community senior representation.


Oral health must be explicitly recognized as an essential component of overall health and quality of life. A general lack of awareness about the importance of oral health contributes to oral and systemic disease and to the marginalization of oral health services from mainstream healthcare.

There is no infrastructure at either the provincial or federal levels of government responsible for oral healthcare for seniors. Health Canada and provincial departments of health must create relevant leadership positions to address oral healthcare needs for Canadian seniors. Under the direction of provincial and federal oral healthcare leaders, oral health services related to prevention and health promotion for seniors must be integrated with public and primary healthcare programs. Legislation affecting seniors' oral health must be examined. Accessible, affordable, and sustainable oral health programs and services must be available for all seniors.

Clear guidelines must be developed for private and public continuing care facilities regarding standards of oral health and the provision of required services. These guidelines should include an oral health examination as an explicit component of "single-point" entry protocols.

The lack of accessible oral healthcare services is identified as a key challenge for rural-dwelling seniors, those who are homebound, and those residing in long-term care facilities

Where patient mobility is an issue, models of care delivery must include mobile dental clinics. Long-term care facilities must be equipped with adequate facilities to provide oral healthcare services for residents. Mechanisms for service delivery to under-served and access-challenged seniors must be developed.

The traditional fee-for-service, private practice delivery of oral healthcare does not ensure adequate service delivery for all seniors. Dental insurance plans are directly linked to the ability of the dental plan recipient to make out-of-pocket payments. Most seniors do not have access to third-party oral health insurance. The use of dental services is related to income and to the existence of dental insurance. When compensation is based on conventional fee guide rates, dental professionals are often inadequately compensated for special care needs associated with geriatric dentistry. Health economists must examine costs to the healthcare and other social systems arising from seniors' oral health needs. The financial support required to include oral health as an element of public and primary healthcare for seniors must be quantified. Dental service fee guides specific to geriatric dental care must be developed and piloted. Although this has already been undertaken in a number of jurisdictions, the effect of specialized fee guides on service delivery must be evaluated.

There is little Canadian research to address the relevant factors affecting oral health and oral health practices over the lifespan. There are no baseline data to reflect the oral health status and oral health-related quality of life of Canadian seniors. Service delivery programs specific to seniors have not been systematically evaluated to determine accessibility and sustainability. Academics must come together to develop a national consensus for oral health assessments for seniors, including standardized protocols for national and provincial oral health surveillance. Research is needed to assess the oral health status of seniors. Collaborative research teams must be brought together to develop and evaluate oral health promotion programs and disease prevention strategies for seniors; develop and evaluate dental practice standard guidelines specific to the needs of seniors; determine the feasibility and mechanisms for integrating oral health interventions and practices into existing primary healthcare strategies; assess the effect of the aging population on the dental workforce; and develop and test different types of service delivery models.

Those who care for seniors and those who educate caregivers acknowledge the need for relevant education and training to meet the needs and demands of the aging population. Accreditation standards for dental and other health-related programs must include explicit requirements to ensure education experiences that meet the oral health needs associated with the aging population.

Non-traditional models for delivering oral healthcare, such as the use of mobile dental clinics to accommodate care needs outside of a traditional office setting, must be included as regular components of dental education.

Geriatric dentistry must be recognized as a discrete area of specialization. Because the complexities of seniors' oral healthcare often exceed the core competencies of undergraduate dental students, programs for geriatric dentistry must be developed to provide the appropriate leadership and expertise to care for this sector of the population. Geriatric training, both didactic and clinical, must be integrated into programs for healthcare workers outside traditional dentistry. Relevant education programs include gerontology, nursing, continuing care, medicine, pharmacy, population health, and health education and promotion. Caregivers providing personal care must be exposed to adequate training opportunities to meet the special needs associated with geriatric oral healthcare.


A promising practice scan was carried out to determine barriers and facilitators in the use of oral health services for seniors by critical analysis of evidence and lessons learned from leading oral health systems in Canada and other countries. The review included a comprehensive search of academic and non-academic literature; Internet searches; and direct consultation with national and international dental professionals, service providers, and program administrators under the following five themes: oral healthcare delivery programs; oral health policies; dental insurance plans (public and private); geriatric dental education; and strategies for oral health prevention and promotion.

A two-day oral health policy forum was held to engage in an evidence-based oral health strategic planning process, based on the research that had been gathered. The forum involved more than 80 participants, including representatives of Nova Scotia seniors' organizations, dental professions, nursing care workers, three levels of government, long-term care, funding agencies, health professionals, and health associations. Formal presentations of project findings, informal networking, and small-group activities were carried out to clarify results, to prioritize areas for action, and to identify roles of stakeholders in the implementation of an action plan to address the oral healthcare needs of seniors. Seven working groups resulted from the forum.

Project dissemination activities included formal reports, media news releases, PowerPoint presentations, storytelling, and animation. Information about this project and key messages about seniors' oral health were also disseminated through printed articles and publications. Additional strategies include news releases and continuing professional education sessions. We will consider how we might work with network TV to write issues of seniors' oral health into shows (sitcoms) or encourage oral health questions to be included on game shows. Copies of tools and materials developed throughout the course of this project, along with links to senior-specific oral health resources, will be available on the Oral Health of Seniors' Project web site ( later in the summer of 2004.