From work to school to every errand in between, the pandemic has affected just about every aspect of daily life, and as we’ve heard over and over again, children are struggling to keep up. As NBC News reports, grades are slipping and absenteeism is soaring. Sadly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, that absenteeism has also surfaced in other cornerstones of child development, including basic health care checkups.
Pediatric dental services were down 69% between March and May of 2020 year over year, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. During this time, of course, many practices had temporarily closed their doors. The numbers began to bounce back in May but are still lower than average. Delta Dental of California and its affiliates saw nearly a 10% drop in enrollees between the ages of 3 and 18 receiving exams or dental service from 2019 to 2020.
So, why the low turnout? A few reasons:
- Apprehensions due to the pandemic. Perhaps the most obvious answer here, but a significant factor, nonetheless. Despite the many precautions taken by health professionals, some parents are still uncomfortable leaving their bubbles just yet. A majority of Americans spent the 2020 portion of the pandemic fearful of contracting the virus, according to a YouGov study. For at-risk parents with few other options, skipping out on these errands can be their only choice.
- Limited options. With months of closures and capacities limited, simply securing an appointment can be difficult, never mind one at a convenient time. Balancing a home that is suddenly now an office and a school can leave few options for exhausted parents to get their children in the dentist’s chair. Additionally, needed care that might’ve been detected in a school clinic setting may go unnoticed with so many schools still closed. Medicaid beneficiaries are even more likely to struggle with these limitations, according to a poll by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan.
- Low priority. While small dental procedures are sometimes seen as easy to put off for children who still have baby teeth, there can be long-term effects. Left untreated, cavities can turn to abscesses or hinder the growth of healthy adult teeth.
- Socioeconomic status. Perhaps the most concerning trend, however, is that of the deepening inequities in health care. The number of children without insurance hit a historic high in 2016 – well before the pandemic hit – and has continued to rise steadily since then, according to a study by Georgetown University. The pandemic, of course, has only exacerbated these issues.
Health care and wealth gaps
As the wealth and health care gap widens due to the pandemic, so do the many ways that such disparities trickle down to the nation’s children. According to the Journal of the American Dental Association, some of the biggest setbacks include:
- Food deserts. Lack of healthy food options disproportionately affects low-income communities and nearly half of all students rely on free or reduced-price lunches. With schools closed, many families are forced to choose cheap and unhealthy options
- Unprecedented job loss. With unemployment on the rise, so is lack of insurance or gaps in coverage. For unemployed or underemployed parents, losing employer sponsored coverage can mean unaffordable out-of-pocket costs for themselves and their children. Roughly 6.3% of the U.S. population remains unemployed, as reported in February 2021 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
- Vicious cycle. A 2020 study by the Journal of Dental Research indicated that nearly half of the people who lost dental insurance during the pandemic will likely remain uninsured. This number is estimated to be even higher in states without Medicaid expansion.
Delta Dental and pediatric care
Delta Dental has been making strides to improve health and give back to our young and at-risk neighbors. In 2019, the Delta Dental Community Care Foundation provided nearly $20 million in funding to community organizations ranging from health centers to food banks. Many of the grant recipients are focused on pediatric health, including the Children’s Medical Center Foundation in Dallas, Texas, Family Health Centers of Southwest Florida in Ft Myers, Florida and Healthy Smiles for Kids (HSK) of Orange County, California.
In 2019, the Foundation funded a program through HSK called Prevention, Outreach, Education and Teledentistry (POET), which helps kids receive a comprehensive six-month dental check-up at their school, pediatric office or community sites. With this funding, the program was able to care for more than 25,000 underserved children.
Additionally, Delta Dental launched new teledentistry options this year, including an app called Toothpic. The program is intended to help patients, especially those struggling to make appointments, such as busy parents, get advice from a licensed dentist without leaving home or having to make a real-time appointment. With Toothpic, users simply answer a few questions and snap a photo of problem area. Within 24 hours, they’ll receive custom advice that includes options, costs and information on where they can find a Delta Dental dentist.
The good news is that unemployment numbers are gradually dropping while COVID-19 vaccinations steadily rise. While this past year’s statistics may feel somber, they don’t have to be the final word. Affordable health care options like Medicaid’s Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnostic and Treatment (EPSDT) benefit for children, are more important than ever, as is education about the importance of dental health.