Dentist working on child's teeth

$3.6 million grant aims to improve access to dental care for low-income children

Case Western Reserve researchers encouraging family doctors to include dental-health screenings, referrals during wellness checkup visits

Researchers from the Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine will expand an effort to improve the dental health of low-income children with a new $3.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

But the work won’t be conducted in a traditional laboratory setting. Instead, researchers will branch out into offices of primary care physicians across Northeast Ohio, encouraging family doctors and nurse practitioners to refer their patients to dentists.

Because that’s the strategy: Suchitra Nelson, who leads the research team with faculty from the dental, medical and nursing schools, believes that talking about dental health should be routine as part of wellness visits in physicians’ offices.

“We’re teaching pediatricians and nurse practitioners to serve as messengers,” she said. “We are hoping that providers share with parents the importance of baby teeth, treating dental issues as they would any medical problem.”

Research has demonstrated that the more children care about dental health when they’re young, the more they’ll care as adults.

“We have to close the gap between those who receive dental care and those who don’t,” Nelson said.

But access to care has been a big part of the problem. Nelson’s found that, while dental care is available for Medicaid-enrolled children, few dentists actually accept Medicaid.

There are many reasons for that, but chief among them is parents canceling—or not showing up for—appointments. Nelson said Medicaid-enrolled children face other barriers such as a parent who cannot afford to miss work.

Part of the solution, then, is providing a list of Medicaid-approved dentists in areas where patients live, because reliable transportation is often an issue for those living below the poverty line.

The research, funded for three years, is geared toward children ages 3 to 6. Researchers working in primary-care offices in Cleveland, Ashtabula, Medina and Elyria will monitor the dental health of an estimated 1,024 children.

This article was originally published Jan. 17, 2018.