The future for children’s oral health – same message, new delivery

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  Posted by: The Probe      6th November 2020

How to reduce levels of decay in children is something dental practitioners have been focused on for some time. The issue is complex, and requires an analysis of social context, diet and other lifestyle and behavioural factors, also families’ access to dental care.

In January 2019, figures showed a staggering 100,000-plus hospital admissions for under 10s in England, due to tooth decay.[i] Ahh… 2019, when we had no idea of the public health event that would soon engulf the world. The Coronavirus outbreak has been a global and a local crisis, touching every part of our lives; in your practice, non-emergency care would have been suspended for months, and in many cases, some may continue to be deferred. Families who had a routine check-up booked during lockdown, might still be waiting to have it re-scheduled. Is the future for children’s oral health too bleak to contemplate? And what about the signs of optimism – in Scotland excellent work has been done, thanks in part to the ChildSmile programme. Last year, it was reported that the number of children without any signs of obvious decay in permanent teeth had hit a record high.[ii] Will any progress be undone?

In areas of the UK where children were falling through the cracks before the Coronavirus outbreak, there is a concern that these cracks have become fissures. Data collected between 20 March and 7 June showed how, in the UK, different social groups were being “disproportionally” affected by the pandemic, with signs of a widening gap between those on lower and higher incomes.[iii] Household income has always been a key determinant for health and wellbeing, including oral health – these are huge forces, and they’re out of our control.

Celebrate the positive

But we must be positive and proactive about children’s oral health; it’s about adjusting the delivery and not the message. No one is doubting the challenges, including the impact of school being out for months in the UK. For all healthcare practitioners, schools are one of our most valuable allies. It’s where children from lower income families can enjoy a free, hot nourishing meal every day. Free school meals have been linked to many benefits, including reduced obesity levels, curtailing snacking throughout the day and we must celebrate the campaign led by footballer Marcus Rashford, that saw the voucher scheme for children who receive free school meals extended during the summer holidays. Aside from learning, schools offer all children a structure, and opportunities to improve their health and wellbeing, which they might not get at home for any number of reasons, for example, the opportunity to participate in sports and exercise.

New ways to engage

With regards to “adjusting the delivery”, many of you will be offering remote consultations, which can be a great way to engage with your youngest patients. They can be non-clinical, chatty and fun. You can talk with children and their parents about diet, including hidden sugars in things like breakfast cereals and yogurts. We all know about food swaps, and while they can be inexpensive, the reality is that they do require a shift in mindset and parents will be picking their battles now more than ever. Engagement with families must be positive, practical, and based on empathy and understanding. If you are not offering remote consultations, why not make a video for your website, or social media. Whatever works for you – you might prefer to send leaflets out, answer questions via email, telephone or WhatsApp. What matters is tenacity, to deliver the prevention message in a way that children will respond to.

Small, yet determined steps in the right direction should be the aim and this is often the way that new habits stick. Changing from juice and fizzy drinks to water is a good one to start with, because of the immediate benefits to hydration; sugary drinks just don’t quench your thirst like water, straight from the tap.

Now, there will be an even greater focus on the home-care regimen – this is the bedrock of prevention and means fewer dental problems and visits to the dentist. A routine is only good if it’s consistent, which means children must keep on brushing every day, twice a day! Demonstrate how it should be done, so parents can supervise. They should use the right toothpaste and toothbrush too. Premium oral hygiene brand Tandex has brushes suitable for all ages, even babies, and you can add value to family consultations by helping them to find the right-size brush for everyone. Encouraging the use of a two-minute egg timer or letting children choose a song to brush along too will help ensure they brush for long enough, brushing charts are also a great motivator and can easily be found online.

The problem regarding children’s oral health has always been a multi-faceted, complex issue and in some areas of the country, the challenge will be far greater since the pandemic. The prevention message is so important because good oral health cannot be separated from good all-round health and wellbeing – getting children off to a good start is essential for a brighter future.

 

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[i] Admissions of children aged 10 years and under to hospital for extractions due to decay. NHS Digital, 10 January 2019. Link: https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/national-indicator-library/admissions-of-children-aged-10-years-and-under-to-hospital-for-tooth-extractions-due-to-decay-iap00426 (accessed June 2020).

[ii] Children’s dental health continuing to improve. BBC, 22 October 2019. Link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-50140971 (accessed June 2020).

[iii] Office for National Statistics. Personal and economic wellbeing in the Great Britain: June 2020. Release date, 18 June. Link: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/bulletins/personalandeconomicwellbeingintheuk/june2020 (accessed June 2020).  


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