A Task That’s Worth the Time

Tooth decay can be easy to overlook — particularly for pediatricians and family physicians, who may be neglecting a crucial aspect of childhood health.

Left untreated, it can lead to serious and even fatal medical problems. The incorporation of preventive oral health care services like the application of fluoride varnish into primary care may be helping protect kids’ smiles and improving their overall physical well-being, according to doctors and a recent government report.

“We Don’t Deal With That in Pediatrics”

Physicians historically were not trained to examine teeth. That was the dentist’s job.

But dental caries is one of the most common chronic diseases in children, and many children do not regularly see a dentist.

“I stumbled across the statistic that oral health problems in children are five times as common as asthma,” said Susan A. Fisher-Owens, MD, MPH, professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. “And I said to myself, ‘Well, that can’t be. We don’t deal with that in pediatrics.’ And then I realized, ‘Oh my goodness, we don’t deal with that in pediatrics!’ ”

Children should see a dentist, of course. Physicians should refer families to a dentist by age 1 for routine care, Fisher-Owens said. The sooner kids are seen, the more likely they are to stay healthy and avoid the need for costlier care, she said.

But the receipt of dental care has gaps.

“About half of all American children do not receive regular dental care because of social, economic, and geographic obstacles,” according to a 2021 fact sheet from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. “Integrating dental care within family and pediatric medical care settings is improving children’s oral health.”

Many children do not start to see a dentist when they are supposed to, acknowledged Kami Hoss, DDS, MS, founder of a large dental practice in California and the author of a new book, “If Your Mouth Could Talk,” that examines links between oral health and physical disease.

Although the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry says every child should see a pediatric dentist by the time their first baby teeth come in, usually at around 6 months or no later than age 1 year, that does not always happen.

Indeed, only about 16% of children adhere to that guidance, Hoss said, “which means 84% of parents rely on their pediatricians for oral health advice.”

At older ages, oral health problems like gum disease are linked to almost every chronic disease, Hoss said.

“We love to bridge the gap, to build bridges between medicine and dentistry,” he said. “After all, your mouth is part of your body.”

A 2021 NIDCR report similarly describes the stakes: “Although caries is largely preventable, if untreated it can lead to pain, inflammation, and the spread of infection to bone and soft tissue. Children may suffer from difficulty eating, poor nutrition, delayed physical development, and poor self-image and socialization. Even academic performance can be affected.”

In November, the World Health Organization published a report showing that about 45% of the world’s population — 3.5 billion people — have oral diseases, including 2.5 billion people with untreated dental caries.

Oral health care is often neglected in public health research, and often entails high out-of-pocket costs for families, the organization notes.

“Strep Tooth”

Dental cavities are caused by bacteria — mainly Streptococcus mutans — that eat sugars or carbohydrates in the mouth. That process causes acid, which can erode teeth. In that way, the development of caries is a fully preventable infectious disease process, Fisher-Owens said.

“I think if people looked at this disease as ‘strep tooth,’ it would get a lot more people interested,” she said.

Bacteria that cause caries can spread from caregiver to child, such as when a parent tries to clean a dropped pacifier in their own mouth, or from child to child.

Caries can be prevented with proper diet and oral hygiene: toothbrushing and then applying fluoride to strengthen teeth or restrengthen teeth that have been weakened by the disease process, Fisher-Owens said.

The biggest risk factor for having cavities in adult teeth is having them in primary teeth, she said. “There is a common misconception that it doesn’t matter what happens with baby teeth. They’ll fall out,” she said. “But actually it does because it puts you on a trajectory of having cavities in the adult teeth and worse outcomes with other adult conditions, such as diabetes.”

At the 2022 annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics in Anaheim in October, Fisher-Owens and Jean Calvo, DDS, MPH, also with the University of California, San Francisco, trained colleagues to apply fluoride varnish to primary teeth — so-called baby teeth — in the doctor’s office. This session is a regular feature at these conferences.

Since 2014, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has recommended that primary care clinicians apply fluoride varnish to the primary teeth of all infants and children.

Many pediatricians may not do this regularly, however.

Researchers recently reported that, despite insurance coverage, less than 5% of well-child visits for privately insured young children between 2016 and 2018 included the service.

Nevertheless, the practice may be helping, according to the NIDCR report.

Since 2000, untreated tooth decay in primary teeth among children younger than 12 years has fallen from 23% to 15%, according to the report. For children aged 2-5 years, untreated tooth decay decreased from at least 19% to 10%. For children aged 6-11 years, the prevalence of dental cavities in permanent teeth fell from 25% to 18%, the report states.

“Fluoridated water, toothpastes, and varnish — as well as dental sealants — can work together to dramatically reduce the incidence of caries,” according to the NIDCR. “Integrating dental care within family and pediatric medical care settings has been another important advancement. The delivery of preventive oral health services, such as fluoride varnish, during well-child visits in medical offices is showing promise in reducing dental caries among preschool-age children.”

Integrating oral health care with medical primary care has met challenges, however, including “resistance by providers, lack of training, and the need for insurance reimbursement for services,” the report notes.

Clinicians can already bill for the application of fluoride varnish using Current Procedural Terminology (CPT) code 99188, and additional oral health care procedures may be on the horizon.

The American Medical Association this fall established a new Category III CPT code for the application of silver diamine fluoride to dental cavities.

Silver diamine fluoride is a newer product that was approved as a desensitizing agent by the Food and Drug Administration in 2014. It has antimicrobial and remineralizing properties, and researchers have found that it can stop the progression of early tooth decay and is more effective than fluoride varnish in preventing cavities.

Several dental groups supported the creation of this new code, which is expected to be made available by electronic health records vendors in July.

Some dentists have reservations, however. The Academy of General Dentistry in October expressed concerns that allowing “nondental health care workers to administer silver diamine fluoride is a temporary solution to a growing oral health crisis.”

Silver diamine fluoride may stop about 80% of cavities. Although the CPT code for silver diamine fluoride has been established, whether insurers will reimburse health care professionals for the service is another matter, said Richard Niederman, DMD, professor and chair of epidemiology and health promotion at New York University College of Dentistry.

Fatal Consequences

Disparities in oral health in children may be greater than with almost any other disease process. The rate of caries in children who are poor is about twice that for children who are not poor, Fisher-Owens said. Disparities by race or ethnicity compound these differences.

In 2007, 12-year-old Deamonte Driver died after bacteria from a dental abscess spread to his brain. He had needed a tooth extraction, but his family lacked insurance and had had trouble finding dentists that accepted Medicaid near where they lived in Maryland.

After two emergency brain surgeries, 2 weeks in a hospital, and another 6 weeks in a hospital for rehabilitation, Deamonte died from the infection. The case sparked calls to fix the dental health system.

Physicians may notice more oral health problems in their patients, including dental abscesses, once they start looking for them, Fisher-Owens said.

She recalled one instance where a child with an underlying seizure disorder was hospitalized at an academic center because they appeared to be having more seizures.

“They eventually discharged the kid because they looked at all of the things related to seizures. None of them were there,” she said.

When Fisher-Owens saw the child for a discharge exam, she looked in the mouth and saw a whopping dental abscess.

“I realized that this kid wasn’t seizing but was actually rigoring in pain,” she said. No one else on the medical team had seen the true problem despite multiple examinations. The child started antibiotics, was referred to a dentist to have the abscess drained, and had a good outcome.

Suzanne C. Boulter, MD, adjunct clinical professor of pediatrics and community health at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, Hanover, N.H., had noticed that many of her poorer patients had oral health problems, but many pediatric dentists were not able or willing to see them to provide treatment.

“Taking it one step further, you really want to prevent early childhood caries,” Boulter said. She started speaking up about oral health at pediatric meetings and became an early adopter of preventive interventions, including the use of fluoride varnish.

“Fluoride varnish is a sticky substance that has a very high concentration of fluoride in it, and it’s a very powerful reducer of oral childhood caries, by maybe 35%,” Boulter said.

Applying the varnish is fairly simple, but it had never been part of the well-child exam. Boulter started using it around 2005.

Initially, convincing other pediatricians to adopt this procedure — when visits are already time-constrained — was not always easy, she said.

Now that fluoride varnish is recommended for all children and is part of Bright Futures recommendations and is covered in the Affordable Care Act, “it became more the norm,” Boulter said. But there is room for improvement.

“There is still not a high enough percentage of pediatricians and family physicians who actually have incorporated application of fluoride varnish into their practice,” she said.

Brush, Book, Bed

Clinicians can take other steps to counsel parents about protecting their child’s teeth, like making sure that their teeth get brushed before bed, encouraging kids to drink tap water, especially if it’s fluoridated, and avoiding juice. The AAP has a program called Brush, Book, Bed to promote oral health, along with reading and good sleep habits.

Hoss noted that parents, and even dentists, may have misconceptions about optimal oral hygiene. “For example, you’re supposed to brush your teeth before breakfast, not after breakfast. But I’ve seen dentists even tell their patients, brush after breakfast,” he said.

In addition, people should brush gently but thoroughly using high-quality toothbrushes with soft bristles — “not scrubbing the teeth away with a coarse toothbrush,” he said.

Niederman has studied ways to prevent caries in underserved communities and is co-CEO of CariedAway, an organization that brings free cavity-prevention programs to schools.

In an average classroom of 24 students, about 6 children would be expected to have untreated tooth decay, Niederman said. And about 10% of the children with untreated tooth decay experience a toothache. So in two classrooms, at least one child would be expected to be experiencing pain, while the other students with caries might feel a lesser degree of discomfort. “That reduces presenteeism in the classroom and certainly presenteeism for the kid with a toothache,” Niederman said.

In communities with less access to dental care, including rural areas, the number of students with tooth decay might be double.

The new WHO report shows that the prevalence of caries in permanent teeth in various countries has remained at roughly 30%, regardless of a country’s income level, and despite efforts to bolster the dental workforce, said Niederman.

“The dental system is similar globally and focused on drilling and filling rather than prevention,” he said.

A 2019 Lancet series on oral health called for radical change in dental care, Niederman noted. “One of those radical changes would be primary care physicians or their offices participating in outreach programs to deliver care in schools,” he said.

Fisher-Owens is on a data and safety monitoring board for research by Colgate. Boulter serves on the editorial advisory board of Pediatric News. Hoss is the author of “If Your Mouth Could Talk” and the founder and CEO of SuperMouth, which markets children’s oral care products. Niederman’s research has used toothbrushes, toothpaste, and fluoride varnish donated by Colgate; silver diamine fluoride provided by Elevate Oral Health; and glass ionomer provided by GC America.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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