February 22, 2014 in Opinion

Special to The Spokesman-Review: Dental care saves money, needs support

Dr. Deb Harper
 

As a pediatrician, I see painful dental problems affecting children and their parents every week. We know painful teeth stop children from eating properly, studying and sleeping. But poor oral health has long-term health consequences as well. It’s related to diabetes, pneumonia, heart attacks and strokes. Children with fewer resources are at the highest risk for serious dental disease.

The Spokesman-Review has been a consistent supporter of good oral health, most recently by publishing a moving article – “Brush with Danger” (Feb. 4) – about the dangers of poor oral health.

Most dental disease is preventable. That’s why I support the Washington state Board of Health’s seven strategies to improve dental health in Washington residents. This is the first time the board has made such a significant statement. In endorsing these strategies, members acknowledge the importance of good oral health and its effect on our general well-being.

The board’s recommendations include having physicians, dentists, pharmacists, schools, communities and social services collaborate to promote healthy living. They include improving oral health literacy and the use of sealants. Parents have the most important role in their children’s dental health: helping them brush, floss, take fluoride supplements and bringing them to a dentist twice a year.

Dental care saves money. In 2011, Idaho decided to save taxpayer money by eliminating dental care insurance for adults on Medicaid. In the next three years, the costs more than doubled as neglected preventable dental problems became medical emergencies. This session the Idaho Legislature is considering decreasing costs by reinstating adult Medicaid dental coverage.

A community can make a difference, too.

That’s what the Access to Baby and Child Dentistry (ABCD) program has done. Started in Spokane, it’s now a nationally recognized program that ensures children under age 6 get the dental care they need. When I moved to Spokane from Chicago, where I worked in the poorest hospital, I had never before seen children with their teeth rotted to the gum line. Fortunately, the ABCD program, started almost 19 years ago, began reversing that trend.

What else can we do?

Adjusting community water fluoridation levels has its detractors, but has been shown to be an important part of oral health. Chicago water is fluoridated, which is why there is so little dental disease in that city among children with low resources.

Good brushing, flossing and careful snacking are also important. Good snacks are those that don’t have added sugar and are not sticky.

Until we acknowledge the importance of oral health to our overall health, well-being and quality of life, it will be difficult to make the changes necessary to fight off dental disease and improve our children’s lives

As with the board of health recommendations, it is important that we support efforts – whether in our community or within our families – that improve oral health.

Deb Harper, M.D., is a Group Health pediatrician who served on the Spokane Regional Health District’s oral health coalition for several years.

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