For kids’ health, make this month matter more

By: Meg Booth

February is Children’s Dental Health Month, but I have mixed feelings about this designation when most of what people see are news articles about free dental care events across the country, including these in Georgia and Minnesota. On the one hand, I applaud the dental professionals who generously give their time to provide services for kids who otherwise have struggled to access care. On the other hand, “charity care” is not a sustainable model. It is 2018, and we should make February a time to talk about redesigning our health system so we aren’t depending heavily on individual good deeds.

Many Americans don’t know that tooth decay is the most common chronic disease for children and teens. Research shows that kids with poor oral health are nearly three times more likely to miss school and about four times more likely to earn below-average grades. The consequences are clear — what happens in a child’s mouth has a profound impact on their ability to eat, sleep, and learn. Losing their primary teeth does not eliminate the consequences.

As children grow into adults, untreated oral health problems can impede economic well-being, limit job opportunities, and even hinder military readiness.

Unfortunately, our current health system makes the mouth the responsibility of dentists and assigns the rest of the body to physicians. This leaves each side with little incentive to coordinate efforts. This divide in both care and insurance coverage are strong reasons for why we see a robust network of dental charity. As noble as these events may be, they are no replacement for a system that meets the long-term oral health needs of children and adults.

"...good deeds are not an adequate “system” of care. ...Let’s start using Children’s Dental Health Month as an opportunity to talk about solutions..."

Children’s Dental Health Month should be a time to spark dialogue among community and health care leaders to explore innovative strategies — focusing on how we change the system to prevent and limit the consequences of dental disease. For example, Medicaid programs in roughly a dozen states have used their program flexibility to pay providers for determining their patients’ risk of cavities. That is a great first step. Yet professionals who see these families should be working together to offer solutions that mitigate their risk, instead of providing a “one size fits all” set of services regardless of a child’s risk for cavities.

Similarly, we know that pregnant women’s oral health is a good predictor of their newborns’ risk for tooth decay. Medical and dental providers agree that oral health care during pregnancy is important and safe. However, insurance benefits, data systems, and provider behaviors are often at odds with tending to the oral health needs of pregnant women and new mothers.

Kudos to the dental professionals who commit their time and talent throughout the year to provide care for those who lack access. However, let’s recognize that these good deeds are not an adequate “system” of care. Charity events simply apply a band-aid on a much bigger problem. Let’s start using Children’s Dental Health Month as an opportunity to talk about solutions and how to use our resources more wisely to improve the health and economic stability of families.

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Children with poor oral health were nearly 3x more likely to miss school due to dental pain.
More on the state of dental health ›