By: Danae Roumis for Dental1
In 2007, the Illinois Children’s Healthcare Foundation (ILCHF) announced a $20 million investment directed at improving access to oral health care in the state. These funds are to be distributed within the next five years. This past November, more than $4 million in grants was awarded to 19 programs throughout Illinois, which are establishing or expanding their dental care programs for children.
Recent statistics support the great need for this initiative. According to the American Dental Association (ADA), 55 percent of all third-graders in Illinois, and 64 percent of third-graders in the state’s free/reduced-price lunch program experience tooth decay. Susan Kerr, the president of ILCHF, explains that “a child with poor oral health can’t learn and grow like his or her peers.” In response to these circumstances, the ILCHF has identified three strategies to guide their initiative. They strive to build the capacity of the state’s safety-net system, increase the workforce of dental professionals in underserved areas, and educate consumers, caregivers and other health professionals about the importance of oral health.
Anyone who survived middle school knows how important it seemed at the time to smile with a straight set of pearly whites. Many of us have had orthodontics, wished for them, or watched a friend or sibling go through the associated idiosyncrasies. But a good, clean smile means more than a decent yearbook photo – more and more studies are linking dental health to other overall health outcomes. Unfortunately, much of what many of us took for granted – the biannual dentist appointment, the dreaded fluoride rinses, the free toothbrush and the great stickers – are not present in the course of every child’s growing up. Currently, the number of Americans that lack access to dental health care is approximately 100 million, ranging from individuals both above and below the poverty line.
The website of the American Dental Association tells us that, “while most Americans seek care from a dentist regularly, some individuals and families face challenges accessing dental care. These Americans, including racial and ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, and those whose families are economically disadvantaged, may also suffer a disproportionate share of dental disease. Access challenges include difficulty getting to a dental office, prioritizing dental care among other health crises, overcoming financial barriers, and navigating government assistance programs. These dental patients may need special financial arrangements, help accessing a dental office, or special oral hygiene instruction. Also, basic awareness of oral health issues for many Americans may be quite limited because of cultural or language barriers or problems with literacy.”
The danger of poor dental hygiene is that what starts with a minor toothache can lead to some very severe outcomes if not taken care of soon enough. For example, cavities and tooth decay occur when bacteria and food particles stick to saliva on the teeth, forming plaque. Built up plaque can also cause gingivitis, where infected gums become inflamed, red and sore. If gingivitis is left untreated, it can lead to more severe gum disease, or periodontitis. During periodontitis, bacteria and pus collect in pockets around the teeth, which loosen the gums and damage the bone underneath, often resulting in the loss of teeth. Periodontal disease has been linked to more widespread illnesses including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and obesity. The American Academy of Periodontology (AAP) reported that there is also a correlation between gum disease and the subsequent, increased costs for overall health care (read the full article here).
Dental professionals advise that these and other conditions are most easily avoided by a regular routine of brushing and flossing combined with a healthy diet. Unfortunately, those without access to oral health care and preventive options are more at risk for dental disorders. In turn, the escalation of conditions and costs can create a heavy burden on both the patients and healthcare facilities. Prevention and early treatment make all the difference in both oral and overall health. Ms. Kerr is optimistic about the improvements that the Illinois Children’s Healthcare Foundation’s funds will provide, especially in light of those made with regards to access to care through health reform made in the state of Illinois, which includes the extension of state programs like AllKids, FamilyCare, and Moms & Babies to a wider range of income brackets.
The ILCHF is looking to fund institutions such as community health centers, clinics, and other providers who will add or expand dental services for children. They also look forward to create an opportunity for more dental professionals to treat patients with government-sponsored insurance, as well as give patients from underserved areas more options and greater access to care. Educators of all kinds play a major role in the success of these programs, who have tremendous power to spread information about the importance of oral health care to children and patients.