Dental care is one of the largest unmet health needs for children in America. In fact, tooth decay is the #1 chronic childhood disease, 5 times more common than asthma and 4 times more prevalent than obesity.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), despite declining rates of untreated decay in preschool-aged children, more than half of children ages 2-8 will experience cavities in primary teeth, of which slightly less than half will still go untreated. Poor oral health correlates to hampered academic success, impaired speech, lower self-esteem and chronic illnesses. These insurmountable statistics suggest a sustained need for preventative dental care programs.
Furthermore Black and Latino children experience disproportionate rates of caries, both untreated and filled, suggesting a need for culturally comprehensive preventative dental care programs. A report released by the Surgeon General, Oral Health in America, highlights ethnic disparities in primary age of access to care; showing that on average that Hispanic children do not have their first dental visit until age 16, more than double the age of their peers. Children who do not see the dentist by their first birthday are more likely to need subsequent restorative and emergency dental visits.
Foundational changes in attitudes surrounding the necessity of dental care begin with creating a perceived value in a solid preventative dental care routine, verses utilizing restorative or emergency dental services. “As health providers it is incredibly important to partner with schools and community centers to reach children and their families with educational programs and resources that help improve health and give families the tools for long-term health,” says Dr. Leslie Renee Townsend, DDS. Regional Dental Director forJefferson Dental Care.
Expanding resources at critical access points is crucial for putting dental care within reach for families. Prevention techniques such as dental sealant programs have proven to be extremely successful in preventing and reducing cavities in populations of children who are at high-risk for tooth decay. Fluoridated water systems in communities across the country have also shown progress in reducing tooth decay. Moreover, working to move the needle on access of care for adults is crucial to reaching younger members of the household.
Improving ease of access increases the likelihood that a family will seek preventative dental care services. More than 31 million people in the US live within designated shortage areas where dental offices are scarce or nonexistent. Furthermore, in 2008 fewer than half of dentists in 25 states treated Medicaid patients, creating an even bigger barrier to challenges that lower-income patients already face.
Tackling barriers that keep Americans from receiving dental care is a first step at creating basal changes to improve people’s health. On a local level, health providers must work to promote dental care in arenas where families live, learn, work and play. On a larger scale further emphasis on the importance of oral health, through public education programs and strategic partnerships with childcare and health advocacy groups are crucial to creating a new culture of health that treats dental care as a life-long priority, starting from an early age. We risk dimming the bright smiles of America’s youth if we do not pay full attention to oral health.