08:44 AM

Penny Wise, Pound Foolish?

This week, two news stories caught my eye. One, in the Washington Post, was about a vote taken in the U.S. House of Representatives to repeal mandatory funding for school-based health center construction. The other, in the Worcester, MA Telegram & Gazette, recalled the days when children in Worcester received their dental care within the public school system. That ended in the late 1970s when most school dental clinics were closed. And since then, the rate of dental disease in the city’s children has been on the rise. It also doesn’t help that the city of Worcester does not fluoridate its water supply.

Across the United States, school-based health centers are becoming an important vehicle for health care delivery for all children, but especially for poor, uninsured or underinsured children. Providing health services where children spend the greatest part of their day makes sense. It eliminates the biggest impediments to getting care – such as the parent/caregiver getting time off from work, finding a provider who accepts the family’s insurance plan, and securing appropriate transportation. School-based health centers help families too, especially when the providers introduce children, siblings and the extended family to community health resources that all can use.

School-based clinics are a first line of disease prevention and eradication. When children and their caregivers know what to do to take care of teeth, and when they are able to see a dentist when something is wrong, cavities are nearly completely preventable. And when neither of the above takes place, children can end up with serious decay and infections that require emergency room care and extreme interventions. (Read about Early Childhood Caries in this blog here and here.)

Today Worcester, MA is working to establish a pathway for young at-risk children and their families to a lifetime of good oral health. Through a pilot program, 730 Head Start children and their families are learning about oral health as part of classroom activities and parent meetings. They are introduced to the dentist as a friendly, supportive adult. Parents/caregivers get a colorful “Baby Tooth Timeline” -- a growth chart which tracks age, height and weight and provides useful dental health information for the child’s first five years. The chart explains when to expect first teeth, what to do to prevent decay, and when to schedule dentist visits.

The next step is to be sure the children have connections in the community to get care when they need it. Statistically, low-income children suffer from dental disease at much greater rates than the general population. Many Head Start children are covered by Medicaid; but not all dentists accept Medicaid patients.

And, not all school-based health centers provide dental services. We think they should. As the Worcester example shows, prevention works. It would be nice if the U.S .House of Representatives would reconsider their recent vote, and instead, approve the wise investment in school-based health centers.

Dr. Mark Doherty is Executive Director of the DentaQuest institute, a not-for-profit organization focused on improving efficiency, effectiveness and quality in dental care.