A paradox of need: Gaps in access to dental care among people who use drugs in Canada's publicly funded healthcare system

Health Soc Care Community. 2021 Jan 25. doi: 10.1111/hsc.13289. Online ahead of print.

Abstract

In Canada, publicly funded healthcare provides no-cost access to a large but not comprehensive suite of services. Dental care is largely funded by private insurance or patients, creating employment- and income-dependent gaps in care access. Difficulties accessing dental care may be amplified among vulnerable populations, including people who use drugs (PWUD), who may experience greater dental need due to side effects of substance use and health comorbidities, as well as barriers to care. Using data collected between 2014 and 2018 from two ongoing prospective cohort studies of PWUD in Vancouver, Canada, the aim of this study was to explore factors associated with dental care access. Among 1,638 participants, 246 participants (15%) reported never or only occasionally accessing adequate dental care. In generalised linear mixed-effects models, results showed significant negative associations between accessing dental care and using opioids (Adjusted Odds Ratios [AOR] = 0.73, 95% Confidence Interval [CI] = 0.58-0.91), methamphetamine (AOR = 0.75, 95% CI = 0.59-0.95) and cannabis (AOR = 0.78, 95% CI = 0.63-0.97), as well experiencing homelessness (AOR = 0.54, 95% CI = 0.42-0.70) and street-based income generation (AOR = 0.75, 95% CI = 0.59-0.94). There were significant positive associations between adequate dental care and accessing opioid agonist treatment (OAT) for opioid dependence (AOR = 1.36, 95% CI = 1.07-1.72) and receiving income assistance (AOR = 1.70, 95% CI = 1.05-2.77). These results highlight specific substance use patterns and structural exposures that may hinder dental care access, as well as how direct and indirect benefits of income assistance and OAT may improve access. These findings provide support for recent calls to expand healthcare coverage and address dental care inequities.

Keywords: Canada; health inequalities; oral health; people who use drugs; substance use.