Childhood dental health is vital in that it is foundational. The oral health and habits established during childhood help to ensure that the child in question enjoys a lifetime of healthy teeth and bright, healthy smiles. Sadly, some children fall through the cracks due to family finances, lack of access to good dental care, or just neglect. This can lead to long-term problems if unaddressed and is a serious impediment to their growth and development.
Fortunately, people around the nation are looking for solutions and making them happen. One of the more proactive and promising responses to the issue comes from school-based dental programs. These wonderful programs help reach children who need dental care and allow them to build the foundation they need for a lifetime of healthy smiles.
What Are School-Based Dental Programs?
School-based dental programs seek to provide needy children with dental care by bringing the care to them. The way it works goes like this: dentists volunteer to visit schools twice a year as part of a dental care and cavity prevention program. Using mobile dentist chairs, they provide a number of necessary dental services including fluoride varnish, sealants, and minimally invasive fillings to stabilize cavities without drilling. Students may also receive oral hygiene instructions, toothbrushes, and fluoride toothpaste to take home. Students who need more involved care or advanced procedures–including real fillings–are referred to local dentists who work with them on the cost of care.
These services are provided in the safest and most hygienic manner available. Notably, the tools and techniques involved do not create aerosols, which in turn create a substantial risk of virus and bacteria spread via airborne particles. In a world still at grips with the COVID-19 pandemic, this is an important step in keeping both schools and dental care safe.
So how well are these programs working? An NYU study of more than 7,000 students who had participated in the program showed that the program reduced cavities by 50% or so. This is a huge change, and proof that this and similar programs show great promise in improving childhood dental health care. As the study concluded: “This school-based comprehensive caries prevention program was associated with substantial reductions in children’s untreated caries, supporting the concept of expanding traditional practices to include office- and community-based aerosol-free care.”
The Future of School-Based Dental Programs
These programs have broader implications beyond the health of the students themselves. If broadly implemented, they could save communities, states, and the federal government huge amounts of money by providing preventative care and taking the load off of other programs. Likewise, they’ll allow families to save huge amounts of money on an emergency or restorative care by heading off problems before they start.
School-based dental programs are facing some challenges, however. School closures and the shift to remove schooling due to COVID-19 have made access difficult for many students. Likewise, uneven implementation of school-based dental programs has led to issues of availability in many marginalized communities. This is an opportunity for the dental profession to take the lead in educating the public as to the importance of school-based dental programs and the role that they play in both individual and community health.