Sitting in the clinic room at a 9-month well-child visit, a parent shoots me a fleeting quizzical expression after I recommend finding her baby a dentist by his first birthday. I can hear her thinking, "A dentist already? But he barely has teeth!"
It's one of the many teachable moments I use to talk about establishing good oral health habits early. Tooth decay and the beginning of gum disease influences a range of medical factors, including the ability to eat healthy food and to speak clearly. Each of these should be fair game for pediatricians as they serve as first sentinels of children's healthy smiles.
In an ideal world, counseling on dental hygiene, nutrition and the importance of accessing dental services would result in cavity-free children of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds. The reality is that in 2016, the 75th anniversary of National Children’s Dental Health Month, significant disparities in pediatric oral health outcomes exist. Children of color and those living in poverty face a higher rate of early childhood caries, and they are less likely to access dental care at the regular intervals recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. They also bear a greater burden of the secondary conditions related to poor oral health, like missed school and tooth pain.
"Tooth decay and the beginning of gum disease influences a range of medical factors, including the ability to eat healthy food and to speak clearly."
February is National Children’s Dental Health Month, an ideal occasion to rededicate ourselves--as pediatricians, dentists and parents—to several strategies that can help families overcome these barriers. The American Dental Association has worked for decades to raise awareness around the importance of children’s oral health. We still have a long road ahead, but much can be accomplished by strengthening oral health partnerships.
There are abundant opportunities for pediatricians to promote pediatric oral health. The well-child visit, while crammed full of anticipatory guidance, presents a prime opportunity to talk with families about caries prevention through seeking a dental home for children, using fluoridated toothpaste, drinking fluoridated tap water, reinforcing healthy eating habits and promoting the AAP
Brush, Book, Bed program and other resources.
Outside of preventive care in the clinic setting, pediatricians can develop their advocacy chops, recognizing some of the social and economic barriers that lead to poor oral health and thinking of ways to overcome them through policy changes addressing systems-level barriers to excellent oral health for all children. Examples of efforts toward this goal:
Help secure dental coverage for children and their families by supporting the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and comprehensive coverage through the Affordable Care Act.
Participate in National Children’s Dental Health Month by conversing with others on social media about the importance of oral health. Find opportunities to take part in Twitter chats and other forums
Support policies that enable pediatricians to perform fluoride varnishes in office.
Learn more about innovative medical-dental partnerships (sometimes involving physical space) as a tool to ease access barriers for families.
Advocate for policies that encourage children to drink fluoridated tap water and to consume less sugar.
Pediatricians play a special role of being the first line of defense against early childhood caries and the first promoters of good oral health in kids. Please join me in celebrating National Children’s Dental Health Month by making a commitment to improve the oral health of your patients and their families.
Qadira Ali Huff, MD, MPH is a member of the AAP Section on Medical Students, Residents, and Fellowship Trainees and serves as the liason to the AAP Section on Oral Health. She is completing her final year of pediatrics residency at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC. Dr. Huff completed her medical education at the University of Maryland School Of Medicine and her Master of Public Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.