Community-Focused Solutions Hold Promise for Improving Dental Health of DC Children

Editor’s note: This blog was co-authored by DC Action’s Kate Kairys and Ruth Fisher Pollard of the DC Pediatric Oral Health Coalition.  We thank Children’s National Medical Center and the Pediatric Oral Health Coalition for the graphic.

A child’s oral health has implications for his or her school performance and overall health and well-being. Yet nearly half (44%) of US children do not visit the dentist each year.

In DC, the situation is similar. About 45% of Medicaid-enrolled children under 18 did not have a single dental visit in fiscal year 2011, according to data from the DC Department of Health Care Finance. Children’s health insurance coverage is high in the US (nine in 10 children are insured), and even higher in DC (98 percent of children have insurance). In the District, Medicaid benefits include dental visits for children, and more than half of DC children are enrolled in Medicaid/CHIP. Why, then, are so many children not getting the dental care they need? How will a lack of early preventive care affect them as they grow up?

Oral health  is critical for children of all ages. For the youngest children, healthy baby teeth are important for speech development and nutrition. Research shows that school-age children with untreated dental problems are more likely to miss school and have classroom behavior problems that hinder learning. Clearly, every child needs proper dental care, but low-income children have the most difficulty accessing it. Access is a problem nationwide; in DC, few dentists, and even fewer pediatric dentists, are available in the neighborhoods of Wards 7 and 8, where almost half of DC children live and where family median income is lowest.

Getting more children to the dentist is one step. But community-based interventions are also needed, which is the focus of work currently under way at the DC Pediatric Oral Health Coalition. Since 2010, DC Action for Children has been proud to be a member of this coalition, along with dental providers, hospitals and clinics, government, academia and other community stakeholders. Our alliance advocates for improved access and care, through policy changes and infrastructure improvements, greater stakeholder collaboration and better community awareness.

We want to congratulate the DC Pediatric Oral Health Coalition on receiving an implementation grant from DentaQuest Foundation 2014 Oral Health Initiative and a renewal grant from the Consumer Health Foundation. As a result of our coalition’s efforts, dental and primary care providers in the city will soon receive Medicaid reimbursement for fluoride varnish application, a treatment for very young patients that is extremely effective in preventing cavities.

Other policy goals in progress include training providers about how to apply fluoride varnish, improving the school oral health form that will allow better communication among parents, school nurses and dentists and providing dentists with pediatric training so they can expand their practices to include children. Our coalition also plans to jumpstart a community awareness campaign about the importance of preventive dental care through community health educators, primary care providers and social marketing.

No single step will improve children’s oral health in DC, but the coalition’s work demonstrates that partnership and continued community-wide advocacy can make a difference.

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