A University of South Carolina study of children's dental health has found that nearly one-fourth of the nation's children have had no dental care in at least a year.
Conducted by researchers at the S.C. Rural Health Research Center at the Arnold School of Public Health, the study found that nearly 32 percent of Hispanic children in rural areas had no dental care in the past year. Twenty-six percent of rural black children had no dental care, followed by 23 percent of "other" children and 22 percent of white children.
"Our nation has a group of children suffering dental disease severe enough to constitute a public health problem," said Dr. Amy Brock Martin, the lead author of "Dental Health and Access to Care among Rural Children: A National and State Report."
Data for the report came from the 2003 National Survey of Children's Health, which used parents' reports to measure the health and well-being of children from birth to age 17. The survey asked parents in urban and rural areas about the condition of their children's teeth, utilization of dental care and dental insurance coverage.
The University of South Carolina report looks at dental health from a national perspective and also provides state and regional analyses.
More than 47 percent of all children 5 and younger had not seen a dentist in the previous year. Among rural children, the percentage was more than 48 percent. More than 33 percent of rural children had no dental insurance.
"Dental care is critical for children, even preschoolers," she said. "A thorough dental exam not only helps children have healthy teeth, but also can detect nutritional deficiencies, injuries and some diseases and infections.
"This report gives us a better understanding of children's oral health and the challenges faced by healthcare providers. It also gives us information specific to rural children, particularly rural minority children."
Among the report's other findings:
- Hispanic children in rural and urban areas are the least likely to receive preventive dental care. Vermont led the nation in the percentage of its children receiving preventive dental care (84 percent); Florida, with nearly 61 percent, had the lowest.
- Hispanic children in rural and urban areas were the least likely to have dental insurance. Hawaii, with nearly 89 percent of children having dental insurance, was No. 1. Montana had the lowest number (nearly 61 percent) of children with dental insurance.
- Rural counties throughout the nation are likely to have Dental Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSA), a federal designation. Of all rural counties, nearly 60 percent had a dental HPSA designation between 2000 and 2004. The areas with the greatest shortages are in Northwest and Southwest states, followed by those in the Midwest and Southeast.
- More than 68 percent of parents in the United States consider their children's teeth to be in very good or excellent condition. Urban white, black and Hispanic parents were more likely to describe their children's teeth as "excellent" than those in rural areas. Among states with a large number of rural people responding to the study, New Hampshire, with nearly 54 percent, had the highest proportion of children with excellent teeth.
Brock Martin said the study provides a foundation for future studies on children's dental health and provides data for policymakers and healthcare providers who make decisions on children's health needs.
"This report provides state-by-state information on children living in urban and rural areas," she said. "Dental care has been designated as the most prevalent unmet health need in U.S. children, and this report underscores that the problem is particularly acute among rural children."