Every parent wants their children to grow up free of the pain, distraction, and expense of untreated dental decay. Yet too many Washington children are adversely affected by dental caries, a chronic condition of one or more cavities that can disrupt school, homework, sleep, and mealtimes, and then impede physical development, speech, and adequate nutrition.
Our new KIDS COUNT data brief describes a number of options policymakers can consider to improve the oral health status of children statewide.
Taking a systems-level view is a key part of the solution.
Just like the Pacific Northwest’s power grid delivers energy across the region, we all count on a health and wellness grid to provide access to the resources that shape our health and well-being.
Community health clinics, neighborhood grocery stores selling fresh food, bicycle-friendly roads and other public and semi-public resources make up the wellness grid. We all benefit when the grid works at full power.
In the past two decades, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and the Affordable Care Act have strengthened the wellness grid. But they haven’t been sufficient to connect all kids with routine dental care they need for overall health. That’s why, when we consult the data, we see stark racial inequities in the oral health status of children:
One reason why the wellness grid is patchy and uneven is that all but one of Washington’s 39 counties lack sufficient health professionals to meet local patient needs.
Policymakers can strengthen the wellness grid to provide access to the resources that shape health and well-being. One strong idea is to authorize dental therapists, one of the most successful oral health interventions available to states looking to improve oral health outcomes and increase access to community-based care.
A workforce enhancement similar to physician assistants or nurse practitioners, dental therapists join with hygienists and dental assistants under the supervision of a dentist. They’re already at work, or authorized to work, in 12 states. And they’re already at work in Washington state: The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community hired the first dental therapist to work in Washington state in January 2016. In 2017, the state Legislature formally recognized the sovereign right of Washington tribes to deliver community-based care with dental therapy, creating a broad path to better oral health on tribal lands throughout the state. Meanwhile, advocates have worked to authorize dental therapy on a statewide basis, and the Lower Elwha, Lummi, Colville, and Port Gamble S’Klallam tribes have added dental therapists to their health practices in four more locations, from the Inland Northwest to the Olympic Peninsula.
When the data shows consistent disparities dividing children by where they grew up, what they look like, or who their families are, then it’s clear that systematic inequalities in the health grid are creating these unequal outcomes.
In the face of these challenges, an array of tools is necessary. Community-level care by dental therapists can be a workforce enhancement that creates better care for all.
Read the full KIDS COUNT brief, Ensuring all kids experience optimal oral health.
KIDS COUNT in Washington is a partnership of the Children’s Alliance and the Washington State Budget & Policy Center, pursuing measurable improvements in child outcomes through equitable public policy measures. The two organizations offer policymakers and the public the knowledge they need to remove the barriers kids face to brighter, freer, more equal futures.