Guest Column

It takes a community to provide quality dental care for Michigan’s children

February 22, 2019
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February is National Children's Dental Health Month, which serves as a time each year for dentists and health care providers to highlight the importance of good oral health for children, their parents and caregivers, educators, communities and beyond.

Last year, more than 1 in 3 Head Start children in Michigan (age 3-5) had a history of tooth decay, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ 2018 MI Head Start Smiles survey. In addition, 22 percent of Michigan’s Head Start children had untreated tooth decay and 24 percent needed dental care — including 5 percent in need of urgent dental care due to pain or infection.

These are alarming statistics for the health and well-being of our children, as well as the state’s economy. Though preventable, tooth decay gone untreated can lead to costly consequences for children and their families, including hospital visits and lost time at school and work — not to mention the unnecessary pain and suffering and difficulty chewing and speaking that children experience, putting their nutrition and development at risk.

At Cherry Health, we know firsthand that access to quality dental care is a smart investment that will ensure our children are healthier and better prepared to succeed in school, work and life. As Michigan’s largest Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC), we not only provide integrated health care services to underserved communities in seven counties across the state, but we also work closely with our community partners to connect children with the oral health care they need through innovative, school-connected programs designed to keep children healthy and in school.

In West Michigan, the Cherry Health School Linked Dental Program provides diagnostic and preventative dental services to students at more than 70 schools in the Cedar Springs, Comstock Park, Godfrey Lee, Godwin Heights, Grand Rapids, Kelloggsville, Kentwood and Wyoming school districts. By utilizing portable dental equipment, this traveling program offers access to dental education, oral hygiene instruction, dental examinations, X-rays, teeth cleaning, fluoride treatment and dental sealants. If a child needs further dental treatment, a letter is sent home to a parent or guardian offering follow-up care at one of our eight dental locations in the region.

In addition, Cherry Health works in collaboration with Grand Rapids Public Schools, Spectrum Health and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to help students achieve improved attendance and academic performance through increased access to comprehensive health care — including dental services, medical, nutrition, behavioral health, comprehensive risk assessment and counseling. We also administer on-site dental services at permanent health center facilities in five public schools across West Michigan.

As a result of these collaborative efforts, the School Linked Dental Program received more than 18,000 visits last school year, and our school-based health centers saw 5,100 dental visits.

As we celebrate National Children's Dental Health Month this February, we must remember that it’s more than just promoting good oral health for our children. It’s about all of us — health care providers, parents and caregivers, educators and communities — working collectively to ensure all of Michigan’s children receive the quality dental care they need to succeed.

Patricia Roels, D.D.S., is chief oral health officer at Cherry Health, Michigan’s largest Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC), focused on providing integrated health care services to underserved communities in Barry, Eaton, Kent, Montcalm, Muskegon, Ottawa and Wayne counties.

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