Have a Heart for Kids Day rally, 2015

Smile survey reveals persistent disparities in access to oral health care

Adam 05/17/17

A new report from the state Department of Health reveals harmful disparities in the oral health of Washington children.

Tooth decay is a preventable disease that has serious consequences, and too many children are suffering for lack of care—especially children of color, kids in low-income households, and kids living in homes where English is not the primary language. Poor oral health hurts the physical and psychological well-being of children, as the report notes. As state data has previously shown, lack of access to timely care is a particular concern for families in communities of color. Among the report’s numbers for second- and third-graders, the main subject of the statewide sample:

  • Children of color have higher rates of untreated decay than white children, and show more evidence of needing treatment;
  • Three in four Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander kids are experiencing tooth decay, a rate nearly 50 percent higher than that for children statewide;
  • American Indian/Alaska Native children are three times more likely to have dental disease in permanent teeth than white children, and have more than twice the rate of treatment need;
  • Kids whose primary language is not English have a 42 percent higher rate of decay experience.

Some remedies are already deployed. Dental professionals are applying protective sealants to teeth in school, and the Smile Survey found that 50 percent of second- and third-graders have had sealants applied. Despite a higher incidence of sealants, however, Latino children are still showing signs of higher experience with decay.

Dental professionals can address these disparities through timely, preventive treatment. Yet all but five of our state’s 39 counties don’t have enough dentists to meet the need. The state legislature should increase access to care, as tribes across Washington and Oregon are now doing, by authorizing dental therapists to work statewide. Just this year, in a positive step forward, legislators passed Senate Bill 5079 to enable Washington’s tribes to deploy dental therapists in Indian Country.

The state is also investing in measures to address the oral health needs of kids and families. Legislators have set aside capital dollars to expand the number of dental chairs in practice settings in western and eastern Washington. By increasing the number of providers, dental therapy can boost the effectiveness of capital investments. A dental practice can schedule 2,000 to 3,000 more appointments per year simply by adding one dental therapist to its staff.

That’s a step more health care programs should be allowed to take—and soon. With 52 percent of all second- and third-graders experiencing tooth decay, and 1 in 8 (12 percent) looking at untreated decay, we continue to call upon state legislators to approve an array of tactics to improve our children’s oral health.