Dental grants aim to improve oral health in Clark County

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photoDave Northfield, Media Relations Manager for Kaiser Permanente Northwest.

Experts have long known that oral health is often a window into a person’s total health. Signs of more serious issues can often be spotted first when the patient opens wide for a dentist. Here’s an example: studies have shown a link between heart disease and gum disease. People with gum disease are twice as likely to develop cardiovascular disease, the number one killer of men and women in America today. Poor oral health has also been linked to Alzheimer’s Disease and premature birth weight, and doctors say poor oral health in children is often a sign of malnutrition.

Doctors and dentists know that improving oral health is a critical community health need in Southwest Washington, across the region, and across the country. To help build immediate and lasting improvements in oral health, Kaiser Permanente has awarded multi-year funding to 10 community based programs. The Northwest Oral Health Initiative is a three year commitment with over $1.2 million in grants, touching an estimated 907,440 children and adults.

Two of those programs serve local communities: the Free Clinic of Southwest Washington in Vancouver, and the ABCD Plus Project through Lower Columbia College Head Start.

The Free Clinic of SW Washington (FCSW) will use its $150,000 grant to provide specialty dental care, addressing a gap identified by the 2009 Clark County Needs Assessment. “The Kaiser Permanente Oral Health Initiative grant will all the Clinic to create a network of dental providers and a system of coordinated dental care for uninsured, low-income adults in Clark County,” said Barbe West, FCSW Executive Director. “Currently, patients are left to their own means to identify dental resources or seek care in a hospital emergency room.”

Caregivers at the Free Clinic believe that improved oral health will help many people be more productive at work or school. Some may be better able to find a job if they receive relief from oral pain, tooth decay or infection.

The ABCD (Access to Baby and Child Dentistry) project at Lower Columbia College Head Start will help children under 6. The grant will help with the coordination of an oral health curriculum at local preschools, as well as train medical and dental providers to care for this vulnerable population.

“It’s absolutely important that young children receive dental care at an early age,” said Dr. Ken Wright, Executive Director of Kaiser Permanente’s Dental Care Program. “Developing good oral hygiene habits and having access to care together can make a huge difference in a young person’s development and overall health.”

Sadly, many patients are faced with few options for dental care, the key to sound oral health. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 45 million Americans had no dental insurance in 2010. With the economy continuing to struggle with millions of Americans losing dental care along with their jobs, that statistic is unlikely to improve soon. And new health care reform laws likely won’t help. Under the law, patients must purchase health insurance by 2014 or face a fine. The law does not require them to buy dental insurance.

Like many other health issues, prevention is the key to sound oral health. And if problems are ignored, they often become much more serious – and expensive – to address later.

Dave Northfield is the Media Relations Manager for Kaiser Permanente Northwest. He worked over 20 years as a journalist, nearly all of it in television, most recently at KGW in Portland. He is excited about a future health care system that's more coordinated, accessible, and focused on prevention.