They say it takes a village to raise a child. So why not use a village to help educate parents and children to the importance of oral health?
We already know it’s a problem. Tooth decay is the No. 1 chronic disease facing children in America. Nearly 1 in 4 children between the ages of 2-5 have had tooth decay. And two-thirds will have had a cavity by their teens.
And we know that there’s something you can do — by making a donation as small as $25, you’re getting toothbrushes into the hands of 10 kids.
But what then? That’s the question that’s been plaguing experts and people invested in children’s dental care. And one that’s honestly been driving me a little bit nuts since I started seeing the work our Kids Against Cavities program does.
You’ve seen the numbers. You’ve been asked to help. But how do we break the cycle and bring about change?
In our Kids Against Cavities program, we go into the schools for state-mandated screenings. Screenings (like the one we did at VIDA Charter School recently) go like this: Children take home letters asking if they have a dentist or have been in the past 6 months. If no is the answer to either of those, they come to KAC. Our dentists check their teeth — looking for sealants, cavities, decay and overall health. They note urgent cases on those forms and then the forms go back home. Parents then fill out the form, saying they have a dentist or appointment, and then the forms come back. If they don’t have a dentist, they’re encouraged to call Family First Health and make an appointment — and we’ll see you independent of your ability to pay. (Also, since we’ve screened the kids, they’re already in our system so you don’t have to wait as long as a new patient for an appointment.)
As in all programs, there’s a chance for kids to fall through the crack. And we’re very motivated to close the loop and not let that happen. That’s why for us (and for many) talking children’s oral health is a team effort between us, parents and the schools.
But maybe (and probably), that’s not enough. If parents don’t care about their own oral health, they’re not likely to teach their children to care. At VIDA, a third-grader told me she doesn’t brush her teeth in the morning because her mother tells her to hurry up and get in the car. The thought of this actually blew my mind.
So our goals must continue to strive to be more widespread and have more impact. Sure, we can screen kids once a year. But education is the point. Education of the child, and of the parents. Then add in all the other players that have times to reinforce the goals like:
- Doctors — Maybe your child doesn’t have a dentist, but they go to the doctor. Doctors can consider oral health in overall health and provide referrals. At three of our sites, you can find dental right there with your regular doctor.
- OB-GYNs — Mothers are often the sources of a primary bacteria that causes tooth decay. There are things mothers can do to reduce their own bacteria and lower the risk of transmitting it to the child. Changing personal behavior not only helps the parent, but reinforces the importance of oral health, which can be passed on to the child.
- Community organizations – Educate, educate, educate. Fewer than 6 in 10 adults said they had significant control over whether they got a cavity. If we can change how adults think, they can teach that to their kids. We can break the cycle by starting good oral health routines early so they stick around through life.
The Children’s Dental Health Project has looked at a lot of issues surrounding this problem and come up with a lot of other ideas related to policy, Medicaid and fluoride. But at the end of the day, they note it’s all about education and outreach — something we truly agree with!