Preventive dental care and screenings help children stay healthy and avoid cavities.
Preventive dental care and screenings help children stay healthy and avoid cavities.

Bringing Dental Care to More SLO County Kids

Public Health Department
Date: 2/22/2018 2:33:37 PM

With two new grants, the County Public Health Department is expanding its oral health program to ensure more children get the dental care they need.

When six-year-old Billy went to the dentist, he had multiple cavities and a painful toothache. His parents had to face that the cost of treatment was out of reach for them. Although the family has dental insurance through his father's employer, that insurance only covers preventive care, not treatment for cavities. Fortunately, another resource was available. The dentist referred the family to the County Public Health Department Child Health and Disability Prevention Program, which uses a small grant from the Center for Family Strengthening to cover the cost of dental treatment for children in cases of severe need. Thanks to care funded by the grant, Billy is now able to focus on school and being a kid without the overwhelming pain of a toothache. And thanks to connections with other parts of the County's oral health program, he and his family are on track to stay toothache-free for years to come.

Billy's family is not alone. Nationwide, dental care is the most prevalent unmet health need for children in low-income families and children with special needs. In San Luis Obispo County, close to 45 percent of children have cavities by the time they reach third grade—and that number increases to nearly 70 percent for children in low-income communities. For many, getting treatment for the resulting toothache is not simple: countywide, more than 12,000 children enrolled in Denti-Cal lack access to regular dental care. Untreated dental disease is linked to problems with nutrition, speech, self-esteem, and even success at school, as children with poor oral health are nearly three times more likely to miss class time as a result of dental pain.

Now, the County Public Health Department is expanding its oral health program to ensure more children get the dental care they need.

The Public Health Department recently received two grants—more than $3 million in total—to expand access to dental care while building a comprehensive oral health system of care for SLO County children. With this new funding, the expanded program will:

  • Increase the number of children local dentists can treat by developing a "virtual dental home" program. In this program, a registered dental hygienist will provide preventive care (cleanings and X-rays) and early treatment services (such as temporary fillings) in a community setting – in this case, a school. Technology allows a dentist to review the X-rays and provide treatment in the office for more complex cases as needed. That means "chair time" with the dentist is available to those who need it most, and more children are able to get the preventive care that may keep them from needing that complex treatment down the road.

  • Bring dental care to more children in need by providing services where they live. A registered dental hygienist will provide preventive services, screening and referrals for children at low-income housing sites across the county, eliminating barriers that keep many children from receiving needed care. Children who participate will be connected with a dentist to serve as their dental home where they can get care as needed.

  • Engage kids and families in ongoing education about how to prevent dental disease. This means giving children and families the knowledge and skills to make day-to-day decisions that support oral health.

  • Build our region's dental care workforce by supporting further education and incentives to practice in this area. Scholarships will support dental assistants and dental hygienists in attaining new certifications to expand their scope of practice—so they can take on more advanced care and develop their career in local pediatric practice. This, in turn, allows dentists to focus on treating the most complex cases.  

This program is rolling out as the County of SLO and communities across the nation recognize February as Children's Dental Health Month.

The expanded program builds on a foundation of work that began more than ten years ago and has grown significantly over time. To learn more about what that work looked like in 2017, check out the spotlight in the County's 2017 annual report: ​Preventing Cavities Today, Building a System of Dental Care for Tomorrow.