Minnesota health officials on Tuesday said they plan to put new emphasis on oral health, saying it's an often-overlooked aspect of human health.
In releasing its first-ever Minnesota Oral Health Plan, the Minnesota Department of Health released new data showing that 55 percent of Minnesota third graders have or have had tooth decay.
The data come from a 2010 survey of about 1,000 Minnesota children. The national average for tooth decay among third graders was 53 percent.
"We certainly can do better," state Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger said.
Health officials will meet with dentists, doctors and others on Friday to discuss how to better include oral health in efforts aimed at improving overall health.
"We have not prioritized oral health in this state or in this country to the level of its importance in our overall health," Ehlinger said. "We focus on a whole lot of other things in our health care system that are less prevalent."
For example, Ehlinger said, there has been a lot of focus on asthma, but oral disease is much more prevalent.
“We have not prioritized oral health in this state or in this country to the level of its importance in our overall health,”Dr. Ed Ehlinger, state health commissioner
The survey of third graders also shows that low-income children and children of color were more likely to have had experience with cavities. Some low-income children aren't receiving dental care: 59 percent of children with Medicaid coverage hadn't seen a dentist in 2011, according to the report.
But health officials said it's not easy to pinpoint the cause of tooth decay. Sugary drinks, lack of brushing and inadequate access to preventative care are all part of the equation, they said.
Not enough dental clinics are willing to accept Medicaid patients, and many Medicaid beneficiaries aren't aware of their dental benefits or the importance of oral health, the report said. And there aren't enough dental clinics in rural areas, the report said.
One bright spot in the report was that 64 percent of Minnesota third graders had sealant — a plastic material applied to a tooth's crevices to prevent cavities — on at least one permanent molar.
Health officials have been trying to increase that percentage through school-based sealant programs, where low-income children can get dental sealants at their school. Twenty-nine percent of Minnesota schools where at least 50 percent of the children qualify for free or reduced lunch have dental sealant programs. A recent Pew Charitable Trusts report said 90 percent of such high risk schools should have dental sealant programs.
"Sealants are very, very effective," said Merry Jo Thoele, director of the Minnesota Oral Health Program at the health department.
Thoele said the state hopes to increase the number of schools with dental sealant programs. She said while the initial survey data helped officials come up with an oral health plan, additional surveillance is needed. Third graders will be surveyed again in five years, and Thoele said she hopes seventh graders and the elderly will also be surveyed.
The oral health plan also calls for new dental providers and better workforce models to help increase the number of Minnesotans who receive preventative dental care. The state passed a law in 2009 allowing dental therapists to practice in the state. Dental therapists have more training and education than dental hygienists but less than dentists.
Ehlinger said dental therapists' effect on improving overall dental care in the state hasn't been fully realized.
"Dental therapists have only been in the field for a short period of time, so we haven't seen the major changes, but it certainly offers some potential to increase access," he said. "I'm hoping this will be one of many solutions we have moving forward to improving oral health."