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Children from low-income families need free dental care

Toronto, January 15, 2014

By Dr. Sloane Freeman

Dr. Sloane Freeman, pediatrician
Dr. Sloane Freeman, pediatrician

As a pediatrician, I’m well aware of the health issues that children face, particularly children from low-income homes.

I’d like to tell you a story about Charlie.

Charlie is a six-year-old boy born in Canada. He lives with two other siblings and his single mother who works full time. Charlie has never received dental care and when I examine him, he has obvious dental caries and has started to complain of pain. When I ask his mom about this, she says that she would like to take him to a dentist but doesn’t know how to access one. She has no dental insurance and does not qualify for government funded dental care. She is struggling to pay her bills and there are concerns with food security – she struggles to afford healthy foods. She knows that it is important for the children to brush their teeth, but the mornings and evenings are chaotic with the children and there is not always toothpaste or new toothbrushes available in the home.

Charlie is not one patient, but a combination of patients at the inner city health program.

My practice is full of Charlies and parents who want the best for their children but cannot afford to give it to them. Our patients need: free and accessible dental health care, including basic dental examination; oral hygiene instructions; routine dental cleanings, including fluoride treatments; as well as dental restorative services, including caries detection and treatment.

In the pediatric clinic, we stress the importance that good oral hygiene plays in children’s health. A healthy mouth contributes to children’s development and functioning. Severe tooth decay in young children can affect their speech, growth, nutrition and socialization. Untreated decay can contribute to gum diseases, ear infections, and eventually early loss of teeth. Dental problems are associated with a reduction in school attendance and in parental working days and we see this first hand at our onsite inner city school health clinic – a partnership with the Toronto School District School Board to improve access to health care for inner city children – and we have learned the preferred way to access health care for these children. Many children attend our school health clinic with oral pain and significant dental related problems.

The dental habits developed in childhood will influence lifelong dental and overall health. Despite oral health’s importance to children’s overall health, for some families, regular dental care is not affordable.

Children born outside of Canada are 3.5 times more likely to have tooth decay than children born in Canada and this is represented in our immigrant and refugee populations. We need to do more as a society to protect our most vulnerable population – children from low-income households. I think that providing access to children 17 and under who do not have access to any form of dental coverage is a great start.

Children living in low-income neighbourhoods have worse health outcomes than children living in affluent neighbourhoods but that doesn’t have to be the case. We need to come together to help close this gap.

Read the St. Michael's media release.

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael's Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.