Guest Comment | Why we need to take care of our oral health in Santa Cruz County – Santa Cruz Sentinel

By Sepideh Taghvaei, DDS

I take care of oral health; after all, I’m a dentist, but you also need to take care of your oral health. I don’t just mean your own dental health and the health of your family, but that of your community. And now we have a newly published 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 to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and poor birth outcomes (low birth weight and premature birth). The impact of poor oral health extends to the ability to eat nutritious foods, get a job, or even socialize with peers.

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

This was an issue 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: Of the 82,000 low-income members of our community who had Medi-Cal as their insurance (and full dental coverage), only 31,000 had access to a dentist.

This is mostly due to the lack of dentists willing to accept Medi-Cal due to low reimbursement rates. The report also highlights the fact that seniors on fixed incomes with Medicare do not have dental insurance. This is especially concerning when you consider the high rates of gum disease and tooth loss in the elderly.

The report wasn’t just bad news – we’ve made huge strides 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-organizational collaboration created by Dientes in 2016 led to some incredible improvements: the number of 1- and 2-year-olds who visited the dentist by their first tooth or first birthday, as recommended by experts, increased by 60% ! The number of children in kindergartens who had untreated tooth decay rose from 24% to 18% in the past few years.

But there is so much work to do. Although the use of dental services by low-income children is very high, peaking at 68% in the 5–9-year-old group, it declines sharply in the 18s and is as low as 21% by the age of 18. 20. This means that only one in five low-income 20-year-olds have access to dental care, even though they have full Medi-Cal coverage. This trend continues into adulthood, with utilization rates remaining in the low 20% for Medi-Cal adults.

The report comes with some recommendations that Oral Health Access will take into account when developing further strategic objectives. The coalition, which includes government stakeholders, First Five, the Office of Education, local dental clinics Dientes and Salud Para La Gente, Cabrillo College, the County Health Services Agency and many others, will work together to address the needs highlighted in the report.

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

What’s amazing about Santa Cruz County is the spirit of collaboration, and that’s one of the reasons Oral Health Access has been so successful over the past six years. As committee co-chair, I hope I can continue this great work and that you, our neighbors, support 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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