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The pandemic has left the entire world feeling behind schedule. Headlines warn of “learning loss” among students relegated to remote schooling, many young professionals have been forced to delay professional exams, and patients have skipped important checkups and medical tests. Perhaps one of the most significant and concerning gaps stemming from pandemic isolation, however, is one that hasn’t gotten much attention: pediatric dental care.

Even before the pandemic, many children weren’t getting the type of oral health care they needed, but during the pandemic, any even larger subset of kids went with dental treatment. That’s because, in addition to those children already being overlooked by the dental system, children who would ordinarily have regular checkups also skipped their appointments as their families stayed at home and dentists limited visits to emergencies. With offices fully reopened, however, it’s time to ensure children across the country see a dentist. The gap in pediatric dental care was already too big, and we can’t allow it to get any larger.

Pediatric Dental Care: An Overlooked Intervention

While the pandemic has compounded the existing crisis in dental care, it’s important to recognize that many children were missing out on critical care long before the pandemic began, and there are several reasons for this.

First, many parents don’t understand the importance of childhood dental care. After all, baby teeth are temporary and are just going to fall out, so how important is it to have them examined unless they’re actually causing pain? In reality, it is very important. When children’s baby teeth aren’t properly cared for, it can damage the adult teeth that are still forming below the gum line. This includes taking them to the dentist by age one, as well as wiping down their gums even before they start teething. Unfortunately, many children don’t see a dentist for the first time until between the ages of three to five or later.

Another reason that pediatric dental care is so important is because many young children actually have untreated dental disease. In fact, 42% of children ages 2-11 have some tooth decay, and dental issues make children more likely to miss school. They may not express this pain the way an adult does, but that doesn’t make dental disease less of an issue.

The Missing Patient Pool: Who’s Missing Out

As noted above, a large number of young patients missed out on dental care during the pandemic, but a particular subset of patients is less likely to catch up on care and were more likely to go without treatment even before the pandemic. While a full third of parents say that the pandemic has made it harder for them to get dental care for their children, this rate was higher among parents whose children were covered by Medicaid’s dental insurance. These are children from families for whom cost may not be a barrier to treatment – Medicaid takes care of that – but access issues like transportation and scheduling may be.

Children in certain parts of the country are also less likely to have access to dental care, particularly those in poor rural counties and certain urban areas. While there are plenty of expensive, private dentist practices that don’t take insurance, overall, there’s a shortage of easily accessible practices that accept Medicaid or are willing to negotiate payment plans or other accommodations for low-to-middle income families.

Bringing Patients Back

Though some patients are obviously disproportionately impacted by pandemic’s stifling effects on dental care, what matters now is making sure that all children find their way back into the dentist’s chair. That means taking a number of vital steps, including continuing to take safety precautions seriously without being frightening – dental care can be anxiety-provoking enough even without all the added sterile precautions – as well as increasing the number of outreach clinics, such as those that go directly to schools, in order to ensure children who are hardest to reach receive care.

While the healthcare system may treat dental health as something of a luxury, separating it from traditional medical care, it’s equally vital and needs to be treated as such. It’s perfectly safe to return to the dentist. How will we make sure that happens for every child?

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