By Michelle Kohler, DDS, MPH
Director, Quality Improvement and Population Health Management
Delta Dental of Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana
It is not surprising that women paid a heftier price than men on the job during the height of the pandemic.
Child care and other COVID-related family challenges fell disproportionately to women. And when it became necessary for someone to cut hours or quit a job to manage the home front, women did so at four times the rate of men.
It is surprising that women also took a hit on their health.
Women typically go to the doctor and the dentist to stay healthy more readily than men. But that all changed during the pandemic.
The Kaiser Family Foundation’s (KFF) Women’s Health Survey of a nationally representative sample of 4,805 men and women conducted in late 2020 showed 38 percent of women reported that they skipped preventive health services during the pandemic, compared to 26 percent of men. According to another study about oral health care during the pandemic, 6 percent more women than men missed routine dental visits.
Even more surprising, it wasn’t low-income women dodging the doctor.
The KFF study revealed that women with incomes greater than or equal to 200 percent above the federal poverty line were more likely to skip preventive health appointments than women with lower incomes. Juggling job and home pressures likely left little time to squeeze in health care visits such as mammograms and dental cleanings. And compounding the problem, health care providers had limited availability because of social distancing and staffing shortages.
Delaying preventive care increases the likelihood of complications and often results in physically and financially painful procedures.
Delaying dental visits, for example, increases the chance that a simple cavity that could have been fixed with a small filling now requires a large filling, a root canal or even an extraction. Oral cancer screenings at routine dental are key to early detection. If not diagnosed and treated in its early stages, oral cancer can spread, leading to chronic pain, loss of function, facial and oral disfigurement, and death.
The long-term consequences of this pandemic-driven behavior for women will become more evident as an increasing number of businesses bring employees back to the worksite this fall and beyond.
Employees already say they’re burned out. Now unaddressed health issues could cause them to miss more work, file more costly insurance claims, pay more out-of-pocket costs and feel more ill-effects of stress.
Employers have a chance to be part of the solution and make women’s health—especially preventive health—a top priority.
Providing employee benefits that include health care, dental and vision benefits is essential to ensuring a healthy workforce. Urging employees to use their time off to rest and refresh, insisting that they do not come to work when they are sick, and genuinely caring about one another are strategies that not only retain employees and keep them performing at peak levels, but they also are powerful recruitment tools.
Women represent about half of the nation’s workforce. Employers will pay a hefty price if they let them continue to ignore their health.