Life is better with teeth. You can eat, talk, make friends, and, as you get older, get a job. It’s not easy for everyone to have a healthy smile, especially for those struggling to get by.
The good news is that things are better, especially for children, than they were six years ago as confirmed by Dientes Community Dental Care’s newly released study, the 2022 State of Oral Health in Santa Cruz County.
Yet, there is a continued gap in dental care for low-income residents where 82,000 people had Medi-Cal, but only 38% could go to the dentist. There were some gains over the first study done in 2016 – 8,000 more people have Medi-Cal and 6,000 more people were able to go to the dentist. Still, 51,000 people were not able to make an annual dental visit – nearly the total population of the City of Watsonville.
Because of a focused education effort around “first tooth, first birthday, first dental visit” in our community, Santa Cruz County is doing dramatically better than the State for children ages 0-2! A whopping 57% of low-income Santa Cruz County babies and toddlers have an annual dental visit versus 25% for the State. And, our County has seen a 60% jump in utilization for this youngest age group, as compared to the earlier study.
We are seeing the longer-term benefits of this program in kindergartners who start school with fewer cavities because parents have received oral health education for their children and because kinders have a relationship with a dentist, a dental home, when they begin school. Nearly 1 in 4 children (24%) started school with cavities in the 2016 study, a number which has reduced to fewer than 1 in 5 children (18%) in 2022.
Alas, as young children age there is an alarming decrease in the number of people going to the dentist. The highest proportion of people on Medi-Cal who go to the dentist are children between the ages 6 to 9. At 68%, this means nearly 7 in 10 children 6–9-year-olds go to the dentist. As children enter the tween years this rate falls to 62%, then 52% for teens, 32% for young adults, and finally to 21% by age 21, where 2 in 10 people are going to the dentist. This rate stays low throughout adulthood, increasing slightly after age 30. While this trend mirrors the state of California, it is concerning given the correlation to not seeing the dentist and costly treatment needs as people age.
Dientes EVP of Operations and Co-Chair of Oral Health Access, Dr. Sepi Taghvaei, calls parents and guardians to action, “The most important things that you can do to stop this trend is to make sure your children go to the dentist for their annual dental visit and to continue to promote brushing and flossing at home.”
The study revealed that the largest increase in access to care was for adults, with 5,000 more adults who have Medi-Cal going to the dentist. Yet, the proportion of adults who go to the dentist is still very low — 75% of adults with Medi-Cal were not able to receive care.
Considering an equity perspective, Hispanics have the highest utilization of dental benefits for low-income residents with Medi-Cal at 48%, followed by Asians 33%, Other 30%, Native Hawaiians / Pacific Islanders 23%, Blacks, 22%, and Alaskan Natives / American Indians 21%.
Dr. Sepi Taghvaei reacts to the findings, “This study is critical to align resources behind the greatest needs in our community. Oral Health Access has made a concerted effort on educating parents about oral health, promoting the application of fluoride varnish in well-child medical visits, and making sure kindergarteners have a dental home. We are proud of the results for our youngest residents. Building on these successes, we are looking at how to move the needle for other important groups.”
For more information and to view a summary and the full study go to:
Dientes Community Dental Care’s mission is to create lasting oral health for the underserved children and adults in Santa Cruz County and neighboring communities. 96% of Dientes’ patients live at or below the poverty level. Dientes accepts Medi-Cal and offers sliding scale fees for uninsured patients.