February is National Children's Dental Health Month. I’d like to highlight an oral health program for children that is seeing some exciting results, which could serve as a leading best practice when it comes to prioritizing our kids’ oral health. In this collaboration between Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, called Building Successful Collaborative State Oral Health Consortiums, we are addressing oral health disparities and promoting access to care for children.
Most infants and one year-olds in the U.S. have seen a physician, but a mere 2 percent have ever visited a dentist. Surprising to many, children who wait until age two or three to see a dentist actually experience more dental issues than those who visit a dentist on their first birthday, or when the first tooth comes in, as recommended by the American Dental Association. In an effort to change this trend, the DentaQuest Foundation and Head Start Association worked together to encourage early childhood oral health care.
Head Start offers a comprehensive preschool program to low-income children, and also provides families with relevant health information and ensures that children in the program receive regular physical and oral health check-ups.
Through a grant from the DentaQuest Foundation, the Massachusetts and Pennsylvania Head Start Associations created a three-pronged approach to encourage early childhood care for oral health, which includes:
- Developing relationships with key stakeholders including state oral health and public health organizations;
- Promoting oral health education; and
- Increasing access to oral care.
Now in the third and final year of our initiative, our Head Start partners have experienced promising successes to share in both states.
The Pennsylvania Head Start Association has done a great job of getting the word out about early childhood care. They developed effective oral health coalitions through multiple forums, which had more than 175 participants. Additionally, they've trained more than 250 individuals in the “Cavity Free Kids” curriculum, which helps children practice good oral health habits. Of these trained individuals, many are teachers, infant/toddler specialists, family advocates and more. Furthermore, to date, more than 335 Pennsylvania dentists have been educated on the importance of treating one year-old children.
The Massachusetts Head Start efforts successfully connected children to dentists, giving them a “dental home”. At the start of the initiative, only 19 percent of dentists said they treated children age one or younger. Massachusetts Head Start implemented a program called “Connect the Dots”, to help dentists and primary care doctors understand the importance of starting a dental home at an early age. At the end of the first two years of the initiative, the number of dentists in Massachusetts reporting the treatment of children at age one grew from 19 percent to almost 40 percent.
We're proud of our work with the Massachusetts and Pennsylvania Head Start Associations, but we still have more work to do if we want to meet our national goal of 75 percent of children to reach age five cavity-free. From a national perspective, Head Start programs offer a great opportunity to reach our youngest children at a critical time in their development. We are looking at the lessons learned from the work done in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, and sharing these tactics with our community partners across the U.S. By training the next generation on best practices, we are mobilizing communities to be sure all children receive the dental care they need, when they need it.