New policy set to transform dental health for children

New policy set to transform dental health for children
BRUSHING UP: All children will get free oral healthcare from birth to the age of 16. Picture: iStock

A new policy is set to transform dental health for children, says Helen O’Callaghan.

THE Irish oral health landscape is set to be transformed following the publication of National Oral Health Policy Smile Agus Sláinte.

The new policy provides free oral healthcare to all children, from birth to 16 years of age, as well as adults holding medical cards. 

“For parents/families, it means universal access to dental care in their local dental practice or wherever they choose to go. If mum wants to drop her child into the dentist’s close to her workplace, she can. It’s ‘your choice, your access’,” says Dr Dympna Kavanagh, chief dental officer at the Department of Health.

Dr Kavanagh says a pull/nudge dynamic will prevail when it comes to getting children seen. 

“If your child’s attending your own dentist, s/he will provide that reminder to come in. If not, there’ll be a nudging from the school dentist at ages five and 12 and between 15 and 19, so the parent realises ‘I’d better get my child in’.”

With only one in six children attending a dentist before age four — and then only for emergency treatment when higher disease levels are seen — Kavanagh says the plan will be rolled out over the next eight years and children aged zero to six will be prioritised (in 2020), followed by teens. 

“These two groups just get emergency care at the moment. We want to get children in before their teeth come up so they see visiting the dentist as normal and so parents get information. For example, diet’s most important in under-sixes, as well as breastfeeding for a period of time and coming off the bottle no later than one year.”

Dr Kavanagh says adolescents are particularly susceptible to oral health problems. “We want to get them set up right before they go onto work or college. After that, we’ll turn attention to the in-betweens — the six to 12-year-olds.”

Describing the new policy as a much-needed change from ‘diagnose and treat’ to ‘proactive and preventative’, Dr Kavanagh says too many people fall “through the cracks” under the current regime. 

“Children entering the system from six years of age already have dental problems — decaying and rotting teeth in need of fillings and other treatments. If they could be seen before they’re two years old for assessment by local dentists — who are accessible and free —rather than waiting for pain to occur, it’ll have the greatest impact on preventing dental decay before age five and reduce the need for teeth extraction under general aesthetic.”

Dentist trip

- Worldwide, paediatric dental organisations recommend visiting the dentist before age two/three years.

- In Ireland, 19% of children attend dentist before four. They have higher disease levels and attend due to pain.

- Smile Agus Sláinte will cover wide range of services, such as oral health assessments/examinations; preventative interventions (fissure sealants); restorative treatment (fillings); emergency care; diagnostic supports; oral cancer risk assessment.

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