Cowlitz County’s overall health hasn’t been much to smile about, but the county is brushing off its bad reputation — at least, in oral health.
Local dentists treated slightly more than half of the county’s Medicaid-eligible children ages 0 to 5 last year through the state program Access to Baby & Child Dentistry, or ABCD, Washington’s Health Care Authority reported recently. Cowlitz County outpaced nearby counties — such as Clark, which treated 48.3 percent of its Medicaid-eligible children — and bested the state’s average, 51.5 percent.
It’s a change of pace for the health-challenged community, which has above-average problems with myriad issues, including obesity, smoking and illegal drugs. Local ABCD dentists, however, said they’re not surprised that the county’s oral health is fairing better because they work with pediatricians and organizations, such as the Cowlitz Family Health Center, so more parents are aware that affordable dental care options are available. The county’s success comes down to education, they say.
“Between the ages 0 to 2, a child sees a physician at least eight times,” said Hani Eid, an ABCD dentist at Longview's Happy Kids Dentistry. “We work with pediatricians (so children) can have oral exams. It’s been a really good community effort, and lots of organizations are involved, too.”
ABCD is one of the nation’s leading dental care programs and treats children in all 39 Washington counties. Children younger than 6 covered by Medicaid are automatically enrolled in ABCD, which pays for most basic procedures, including X-rays, fillings, tooth extractions and basic cleaning.
Lower Columbia College’s Head Start began the program for Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties in 2007. The program’s goals are primarily educational, so parents and children learn good dental habits to prevent tooth decay and avoid costly repair procedures.
“Families without access to care show up when their kids are 3 and have rampant decay,” Eid said Tuesday.
Left too late, that decay often develops into more serious health and social problems, said Dr. Hazar Jaber, office manager of Happy Kids, which treats the majority of Cowlitz County’s ABCD patients. Currently, the office treats 2,300 ABCD children, which is about one-third of its total patient load.
“It affects the speech, quality of living. A kid like this — she’s 3 years old. How can she eat?” Jaber said Tuesday, pointing to a picture of a patient’s abscessed mouth and eroded teeth, which were worn down to the gums. “You’re experiencing discomfort, so you’re not eating as much and you’re undernourished.”
The trick to prevention is simply, “Get it done in year one.” Parents are encouraged to see a dentist soon after their child’s first tooth erupts, so they can establish a “dental home.”
Eid said he’s seen a noticeable improvement in patients booking appointments well before teeth have the opportunity to decay. Consistency also is key in prevention.
“I see a lot of families coming in at age 1. Those kids don’t have the fear of dentistry,” he said. “The continuation of care makes a difference when we establish a dental home. The goal is to prevent the problem, rather than treat it.”
Longview mom Erica Bockman has brought her two-year-old son, Link Hillman, to Happy Kids three times through ABCD. Bockman said she’s seen other family members lose teeth because they had bad dental hygiene, and she wanted her son to avoid that experience.
Though she practices good dental hygiene on herself, Bockman said she has learned something new at each of Link’s appointments.
“The dentists have really helped us understand what to do to keep teeth healthy,” she said. “I’m fastidious. I didn’t know a lot of this stuff (before), but we do it and we want him to learn how to brush, too.”
Jaber said ABCD’s success is evident in kids like Link, but there is still a long way to go.
“We still have a lot to do. Our goal is to treat 100 percent (of Medicaid children),” she said. “If we can get every child in the community to have a dental home, Cowlitz County will be better.”