Extracting the roots of the child dentistry crisis

UK child tooth decay hit the headlines consistently over the past year — with a 24 per cent rise between 2006/7 and 2015/16 according to recent reports.

The roots of the crisis concern various factors ranging from the personal to the political.

With hospital operations to remove teeth in children and teenagers costing £129 million annually, what steps can we take to ease the pain?

Root cause

Tooth decay is a pain at any age but children affected bear a heavy burden and the associated sleepless nights are a hammer-blow to harassed families.

On a basic level parents must plan prevention — fewer sugary snacks, brushing with quality toothpaste and regular check-ups remain top of their to-do lists. And the 2018 ‘sugar tax’ will hit preoccupied parents right in their pockets.  

But when NHS dental treatment is free for under-18s, why did 42 per cent of children did not see a dentist in 2015/16?

Austerity bites

Are more teeth torn out due to an expanding poverty gap?

Mick Armstrong of the British Dental Association thinks so — emphasising that children in Blackburn are now seven times more likely to suffer tooth decay than those born in Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s Surrey constituency.

Dentists in Manchester also cite a city-wide £13 million child tooth decay bill as evidence of the disparity in child oral health awareness in rich and poor areas.

Government points to progress made on updating the Personal Child Health Record as well as advice and information available online. But dentists in poorer communities say proactive measures are essential to raise awareness.  

What can dentists do?

Most dentists are well aware that a trip to the surgery is hardly a sugary treat for children. So as well as lobbying Government for more parental education, they make treatment as smooth and soothing as possible for child clients.

Kids won’t get a sugar-laden lollypop for dental diligence these days, but they can expect colourful child-friendly waiting rooms and empathic practitioners who make the hot-seat as painless as possible.

The punitive UDA (Unique Dental Activities) payment system introduced  after 2005 may also have punished dentists keen to serve more NHS clients.

While the previous fee-per-item model sustained the best oral health in 12-year-olds in Europe, the current system forces practitioners to focus on targets rather than prevention — they can actually be paid the same for a single filling as for a full course of treatment.

So government and dentists alike are seeking a collaborative approach combining effective educational awareness with a flexible funding model.  A new approach might maintain similar smiles for children across the country.

With UK dentists’ x ray storage cupboards bulging with graphic evidence of child tooth decay, something needs to be done to stop the rot.

So what steps do you think we should take to tackle child tooth decay? Share your views in the comments below.

Photo by Nanagyei