Dental sealants, protective coatings that cover the grooves found on the surface of molars, are a proven-successful tool for preventing tooth decay. School sealant programs are one of the most effective ways to reach children who might not otherwise receive oral health care and prevent painful cavities.
But a recent Pew Charitable Trusts report finds that too many states have policies and practices that work against expanding school sealant programs.
According to the report, some states have laws limiting the scope of work certain oral health care providers can perform in a school setting or require a dentist to examine students before receiving sealants. These requirements can impede efforts to expand school sealant programs because it can make programs more expensive to operate and less efficient, the report said.
Washington families are fortunate that our state has policies in place to help increase access to preventive oral health care in a school setting, and in turn, help reduce the impacts from poor oral health.
For example, our state allows dental hygienists to apply sealants in schools and school sealant programs can bill Medicaid, which is a significant source of funding for them. But, there is room for improvement, said Stacy Torrance of Arcora Foundation, the foundation of Delta Dental of Washington.
Low Medicaid reimbursement rates are a barrier for providers, which may be one of the reasons why less than 25 percent of high-need schools in Washington have programs. Additionally, Washington law limits hygienists to providing sealants in schools, when there are many other community-based settings that would also be effective locations for reaching children, particularly when school is not in session.
Efforts to reduce these hurdles will help ensure that even more kids can experience a childhood free from dental pain. Though largely preventable, tooth decay remains the most common chronic disease in children, with lower-income children and children of color experiencing higher rates of tooth decay than their more affluent or white peers.
School sealant programs are convenient for working families and students: children don’t have to take time off from school and parents from work to get this proven-effective, cavity-preventing treatment. And school sealant programs work, the Pew Report says:
“Sealants can reduce the risk of decay in permanent molars – the teeth most prone to cavities – by 80 percent in the first two years after application and continue to be effective after more than four years.”
Arcora Foundation and fellow Oral Health Watch members are working to reduce barriers for school sealants programs and expand school-based oral health care in communities across the state.