Do you know how many of your patients plan to become pregnant or adopt a child in the next year? Unlike physicians, you probably see most of your patients every six months. In the space between cleanings, a woman could be almost 2/3 of the way through a pregnancy or an average adoption could be nearly finalized.

Since visits can be far apart, communication is key. When your patients tell you about plans to have a child, tell them how important it is to consider dental health and visits to the dentist as an important part of a child’s overall health. Less than half of parents receive professional advice on when to start taking their child to the dentist, which can lead to early oral health problems and dental disease.

The pandemic’s effect on pediatric oral health

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, dental disease among children was rampant:

The pandemic made these problems worse by stressing the financial systems that deliver dental care with job loss that led to lack of coverage and loss in income. As a result of the pandemic, households were three times more likely to indicate that dental care was an unmet health need of theirs rather than medical care, according to a JADA study. The authors found a significant association between the probability of unmet child dental care and pandemic-related household income or job loss.

About 40% of families reported the loss of a job or decrease in income due to the pandemic. Before the pandemic, children from families with lower incomes or on Medicaid were twice as likely to have cavities than children from higher-income households. Whether due to lost or decreased income, fear of contracting COVID-19 or mixed communication from health organizations, dental care visits dropped in 2020.

Luckily, households were unlikely to completely lose health insurance during the pandemic. Robust signups for Medicare and Medicaid kept many people insured. But cost remains the major barrier to receiving dental care. Although access to pediatric dental care has grown for families with public insurance since the early 2000s, inequitable access continues to be linked to socioeconomic status. Additional barriers include difficulty finding a dentist, transportation and geographic proximity to available dentists.

What you can do to address unmet needs

As a dentist or a hygienist, you’ve got a lot to do in a day. You can still find ways to address children’s health that fit into your office’s workflow. Here are some examples you can use to start the conversation with your co-workers and with patients:

  • Talk about timelines. Be sure to inform any new parents, guardians or caretakers about recommended timelines for pediatric care to guarantee they get the information they need from a trusted source.
  • Get innovative. Did you know that 75% of pediatric dentists offer virtual services, compared to only a third of general dentists? If you haven’t explored teledentistry services, consider adding them to your repertoire.
  • Share materials. Explore Delta Dental’s wellness resources and share a selection of helpful articles and flyers in your office or on your website. You can even highlight assets that are made for kids, like MySmileKids and Grin! for Kids.
  • Collaborate instead of criticizing. Making a patient feel guilty, ashamed or afraid for their health rarely works to inspire improvement. Focus on behaviors that they can change and empower them with knowledge.
  • Gather information. Your patients may feel uncomfortable if you ask them directly about their plans to conceive or adopt in the next year. If your practice already does pre-screenings, consider adding a question to capture that information and add it to the patient’s file.

How Delta Dental invests in communities

The best way to treat the pediatric oral health dilemma is large investment in public dental health, something dentists can’t really do on their own. The COVID-19 pandemic stressed the financial system that supports the delivery of dental care services, revealing that changes are required to support access to dental care during times of changing financial situations.

To help dentists make investments in their communities, the Delta Dental Community Care Foundation awards several million dollars in grants each year to increase access to care. These awards enable underserved individuals, including children, to get preventive and restorative treatments in accessible locations. More than 250 organizations received funding from the Delta Dental Community Care Foundation during the COVID-19 pandemic, totaling $11 million to provide relief. Many of these clinics support and serve children.

These Access to Care grants fund activities designed to remove barriers to seeking care such as distance, cost and even fear. The grants can be used to set up mobile or pop-up clinics in a local community, provide dental care in underserved clinical settings, fund outreach programs or offset costs for clinics that routinely provide care to underserved populations.

What comes next

The U.S. economy seems to be recovering. The national unemployment rate is projected to fall to 5.3% by the end of the year. But the problems highlighted by the pandemic shouldn’t be ignored.

As a dentist or dental hygienist, you can’t be expected to fix all of the problems in the American economy or health care industry. Still, by making active efforts to be accessible and communicative with your patients, you can make a difference in their lives and the lives of their children.