Guest Commentary | Why we should care about our oral health in Santa Cruz County – Santa Cruz Sentinel

By Sepideh Taghvaei, DDS

I care about oral health; after all, I’m a dentist, but you should also care about oral health. I don’t mean just your own dental health and your family’s, but that of your community. And now, we have a newly released study that gives us a deep understanding of Santa Cruz County’s oral health.

Why should you care? Because there are many correlations. Poor dental health can have a negative impact on children’s quality of life, how well they do in school, and even their success later in life. Poor oral health is linked with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, and poor birth outcomes (low birth weight and premature delivery.) The impacts of poor oral health extend to the ability to eat nutritious foods, find a job, or even socialize with peers.

You may think that the solution is as easy as brushing, flossing and going to the dentist; but there are so many factors that affect one’s oral health beyond just brushing and flossing. For example, children from low-income families are twice as likely to have dental decay. This, coupled with the fact that so many low-income residents do not have access to dental care, presents a significant problem.

This was an issue that was recently highlighted in “The Continuing Need for Oral Health Services”, a third-party oral health needs assessment conducted by Barbara Aved Associates. The report included some sobering data: out of 82,000 low-income members of our community who had Medi-Cal as their insurance (and full dental coverage), only 31,000 were able to access a dentist.

This is mostly due to lack of dentists who are willing to accept Medi-Cal because of low reimbursement rates. Furthermore, the report highlighted the fact that fixed-income seniors with Medicare do not have dental insurance. This is particularly alarming when you consider the high rates of gum disease and tooth loss in seniors.

The report wasn’t all bad news – we’ve had tremendous gains in our county when it comes to improving access to dental care for children. The work of the Oral Health Access Steering Committee; a multi-organization collaborative formed by Dientes in 2016, has led to some amazing improvements: the number of 1- and 2-year-olds who visited the dentist by their first tooth or first birthday, as recommended by experts, has gone up by 60%! The number of kindergartners who had untreated tooth decay has gone from 24% to 18% over the last several years.

But, there is so much work to be done. Although utilization of dental services by low-income children is very high peaking at 68% in the 5–9-year-old group, it drops sharply in the tween-teen years and goes all the way down to 21% by the age of 20. That means that only one in five low-income 20-year-olds are accessing dental care despite having full coverage with Medi-Cal. This trend continues into adulthood with the utilization rates staying in the low 20%s for adults on Medi-Cal.

The report comes with some recommendations which Oral Health Access will consider as they develop further strategic goals. The coalition which includes stakeholders from the government, First Five, Office of Education, local dental clinics Dientes and Salud Para La Gente, Cabrillo College, County’s Health Services Agency, and many others will work together to address the needs highlighted in the report.

You can help too, by incorporating oral health education into your work, asking your representatives to add dental benefits to Medicare, or supporting our local community dental clinics whose mission is to serve low-income patients.

What’s amazing about Santa Cruz County is the spirit of collaboration and that is one reason why Oral Health Access has been so successful over the last six years. As the co-chair of the committee, I hope to be able to continue this great work and have you, our neighbors, supporting us along the way.

Sepideh Taghvaei, DDS, is EVP of Operations, Dientes Community Dental Care, and Co-Chair, Oral Health Access Santa Cruz County.

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