A recent, first-of-its-kind study found that Minnesota youth who have foster care experience are significantly more likely than their non-foster peers to report each of five oral health problems and markedly less likely to report receiving dental care.
Although most foster children have medical and dental coverage through Medicaid, they often have a hard time accessing oral health care, the study said. One of the biggest problems is finding a dentist who takes Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
The study, conducted by the University of Minnesota and published in The Journal of the American Dental Association, found that the problem disproportionately affects children of color because they make up an outsize share of foster kids.
It compared the self-identified oral health needs and access to dental care among youth who have and have not experienced foster care.
The data was pulled from the 2019 Minnesota Student Survey, a statewide survey of public school students in fifth, eighth, ninth and 11th grades. Youth with a history of foster care were compared to youth without.
Youth were asked whether they had experienced five types of dental problems in the past 12 months: toothaches or pain; tooth decay or cavities; swollen, painful or bleeding gums; inability to eat certain foods because of a dental problem; or missed any school days because of a dental problem.
Youth who reported dental problems were then asked if this oral health issue was treated by a dentist and when they last had an appointment at a dental office for a check-up, exam, teeth cleaning or other work. They were also asked about routine dental care.
Kids with a history of foster care were more likely to report each of the five dental problems and less likely to report receiving dental care, compared with other kids. About 44% of youth with a history of foster care reported at least one dental problem, compared to approximately 32% of other youth. And youth with a history of foster care had lower odds of seeing a dentist for a dental problem (58.2% versus 71.2%) or for routine dental care (69.6% versus 84.4%), than their peers.
“To our knowledge, this study is the first in the United States to survey youth with a history of foster care about their oral health care needs using their own words,” said study co-author Elise W. Sarvas, a clinical associate professor in pediatric dentistry at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry.
Co-author Rebecca J. Shlafer, an assistant professor in the University of Minnesota Medical School, said the differences between the foster and non-foster kids could largely be explained by the higher poverty rate of the former group.
“Dentists should recognize the oral health concerns of this group of kids in the context of their special health care needs and be prepared to render appropriate care,” she said.
Money for the study came from National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Health Resources and Services Administration. Cavities are one of the most common chronic diseases of childhood in the United States.