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Can dentists help patients experiencing food insecurity?

Finding solutions for patients experiencing food insecurity needs to be done with both sensitivity and a collaborative spirit. (Image: David Pereiras/Shutterstock)

LIVERPOOL, UK: Food insecurity affects 17% of households in the UK, according to a 2023 government survey. This lack of consistent access to sufficient nutritious food for a healthy life, often due to economic hardship, has social, well-being and health impacts and can lead to poor health outcomes, such as dental caries. A new study investigating the views and capabilities of dental professionals in dealing with the effects of food insecurity within the context of oral health care has found that, while dental clinicians are well placed to direct patients to supportive services, they lack the confidence to do so.

An anonymous survey administered to 698 members of the British Society of Paediatric Dentistry, for which the response rate was 9.6%, found that 80.3% understood the link between food insecurity and poor oral health. However, confidence in addressing food insecurity directly was notably lower, many citing a lack of training and resources as major barriers. Despite recognising their role in advising on dietary impacts on oral health, dental professionals expressed varying levels of comfort in discussing the broader social issue of food insecurity with patients.

Almost 95% of those who responded felt that diet was a major component of oral health, and 96% agreed that it was up to dental professionals to offer dietary counselling. Roughly 80% felt that they had adequate knowledge to offer this kind of advice. Just 37% felt confident in their ability to identify individuals who may be experiencing food insecurity, and even fewer (33%) felt they would be able to address the topic with their patients.

Some of the respondents expressed the belief that there were other services better placed to help individuals experiencing food insecurity. One commented: “I don’t think this is my job to have these discussions. There are other more appropriate services who can provide this information.” Another said, “I do not believe it is the role of dentists to act as social workers. I would of course direct families I felt were struggling to services which may help with this, but I do not feel that dentists should be the ones to be leading these discussions.”

“Being able to offer practical, realistic and holistic advice is very important in a non-judgemental way.”—Study respondent

In response to the survey results, the study authors suggested that, because clinicians expressed discomfort in discussing the topic owing to social stigma and not wanting to embarrass the patients, there was room for options such as screening tools to better gauge patient status and coaching skills for clinicians who sought to feel more comfortable discussing the topic. Additional proposed interventions included better provision of necessary resources and improved signposting in local communities, all done with sensitivity to avoid patients in need feeling uncomfortable.

It was further suggested that collaborating with patients who have previous experiences with food insecurity would best help with designing solutions. One survey respondent said, “Just be open and ask as part of the assessment.” Another said, “If parents and children are engaged and relaxed, they may well talk about food insecurity” and advised “being sensitive to the fact that people with food insecurity may feel stigmatised whilst appreciating the ‘rights of the child’”. Yet another suggested that “being able to offer practical, realistic and holistic advice is very important in a non-judgemental way”.

The study, titled “Food insecurity and the dental team: A pilot study to explore opinions”, was published online on 18 March 2024 in BDJ Open.

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