In recognition of National Minority Health Month, Oral Health Watch is focusing this week’s blog on the oral health disparities ethnic and racial minorities disproportionately experience.
Overall, oral health among children in Washington is improving. According to the 2015-2016 Smile Survey, the rate of untreated cavities is down to 12 percent with an overwhelming majority of elementary children getting early treatment. The use of dental sealants also has climbed among children of all income levels and ethnicities, with more than half of third-grade children, or 54 percent, receiving this protective coating on their molars.
But oral health disparities persist. “Large gaps exist by income, race and ethnicity, and language spoken at home,” according to the Smile Survey.
The 2015-2016 children’s oral health assessment found the following:
- Children of color in second and third grades reported higher rates (40 to 80 percent) of decay than their white peers.
- Children who primarily speak English at home had 50 percent fewer cavities than children who speak a language other than English at home.
- American Indian/Alaska Native children had more severe and higher rates of decay than their white counterparts (67 percent versus 45 percent).
- Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander reported the highest cavity rates in comparison to white children (75 percent versus 45 percent).
Oral health is fundamental to general wellbeing.
Poor oral health and painful cavities can have lasting physical and emotional effects on children and adults. Discomfort from dental pain can impact school attendance, sleep, nutrition and overall health. Down the road, oral disease can affect chronic conditions like diabetes or heart disease. Visible decay and missing teeth also can affect job prospects, self-esteem and how others perceive you.
The good news is that there are strategies to reduce oral health disparities experienced by communities of color. The state, health care organizations, providers and advocates are working together to find lasting and sustainable solutions to meet underserved populations, including ethnic and racial minorities.
For example, the state is investing $16.5 million toward 23 projects that will expand dental care capacity, including the recently announce clinics in Spokane. Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center and the Community Health Association of Spokane will receive a $1.6 million grant fromDelta Dental of Washington, $400,000 grant Arcora Foundation and $2 million in state dollars toward two dental clinics serving lower-income patients.
Lawmakers also recently funded a pilot program to expand the proven-effective Access to Baby & Child Dentistry (ABCD) program to increase access to dental care for pregnant women and people with diabetes. And legislators passed legislation this year to expand eligibility in ABCD for kids up to age 13 with developmental disabilities. In 2017, Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law a bill that aims to improve oral health for Native people on tribal lands by allowing tribes to access federal funding for dental health aide therapists (DHATs), primary oral health care providers trained to perform certain procedures under a dentist’s supervision. The Swinomish Tribe currently has a DHAT providing care for tribal members, and other tribes are training DHATs.
The state Board of Health also has endorsed seven oral health strategies, including community water fluoridation, school sealant programs, culturally competent messaging, collaboration among health professionals, and training and recruiting more students of color into dental professions to reduce oral health disparities in all communities.
Washington residents are fortunate to live in a state that recognizes the important role oral health plays in maintaining overall health. While there is much to celebrate, there also is much more we all can do to ensure that every resident has access to preventive oral health care and early dental treatments. National Minority Health Month offers the opportunity to raise awareness about health disparities and better understand the barriers that prevent oral health equity in our state.