This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Herald Leader February 25, 2021.
By Dr. Stephanie Poynter
It is no secret that Kentucky has historically had a poor reputation when it comes to our dental health. In a recent study ranking states with the best and worst dental health, the Commonwealth ranked 41st in the nation in indicators of dental wellness. We have among the lowest dentists per capita, highest sugar-sweetened beverages consumption, and highest percentage of adult smokers – all contributing factors to poor oral health outcomes.
This is a reality that dental providers and advocates have grappled with for decades. And this is the reality that motivates the Kentucky Oral Health Coalition and its diverse membership in its collaborative oral health campaign designed to educate parents, activate policymakers, and inspire health professionals, as well as engage the public to create optimal oral health for all.
February is National Children’s Dental Health Month – a time when dental health providers and advocates promote the importance of establishing good oral hygiene habits early in life, needs around access to dental care and coverage, and ways to improve health outcomes across the lifespan.
Now, many of us have likely experienced some sort of tooth pain in our life – think back to how distracting or limiting that pain was for your daily life.
For children, when experiencing prolonged and persistent dental pain, it is difficult for them to develop the skills they need to learn. Once in school, students with poor dental health are three times more likely to be absent than other students. Additionally, children with poor oral health care experience higher rates of emergency room visits and have less promising job prospects as adults compared to children who receive appropriate oral health care.
The bottom line: when teeth are healthy and pain-free, it is easier for children to focus and listen, play and learn, and grow and thrive.
A recent survey of Kentucky parents and oral health, primary care, and school professionals conducted by KOHC indicated that the Commonwealth needs increased education around dental care early in a child’s life from pediatricians, school professionals, and parents as well as improved access to affordable dental care across the state. Here are a few urgent recommendations for action in the state house to the schoolhouse to your house:
▪ Promoting oral health literacy campaigns to teach the basics of oral health.
▪ Integrating oral health services into doctor’s visits to prevent cavities in children, pregnancy complications in women, and oral health infection in adults.
▪ Ensuring all children entering Kindergarten have a dental screening/exam.
▪ Establishing school-based health programs and utilizing the Expanded Care Services policy in schools to increase access to care for children.
▪ Increasing access to care in rural and urban communities by leveraging tele-dentistry to detect oral health concerns – a practice that has increased in use during the COVID-19 pandemic.
▪ Sustaining state funding for Medicaid and Kentucky Children’s Health Insurance Program (KCHIP), and prioritizing investments focused on closing the remaining gap in child health coverage.
Oral health is much more than a bright, beautiful smile.
It takes establishing good brushing and flossing routines early in life and maintaining regular dental check-ups across the lifespan. It takes more equitable access to dental care. It takes a commitment from state leaders to allocate funds for Medicaid and KCHIP programs and to address persistent racial disparities in coverage and access so that every child and their family can access the health care they need. It requires healthy foods and safe drinking water in every neighborhood and county.
It takes all of us to recognize that oral health IS health and that it must be prioritized in our homes, in our communities, and in our state budget. Only then will we see progress in that poor oral health ranking that has burdened the Commonwealth for far too long.
Dr. Stephanie Poynter is the dental director at Family Health Centers, Inc. and chair of the Kentucky Oral Health Coalition.