Babies and the dentist: while the two may not initially seem to go hand in hand, recent research has shown the importance of a child’s dental health, even as early as infancy. Did you know that when a pregnant woman has a dental disease, her baby is also at an increased risk of developing a dental infection? Research has shown that without proper oral health practices and good nutrition, dental decay can begin soon after babies get their first teeth! Pain from dental disease impacts nutritional intake and tooth loss, damaged teeth, and other dental issues erode self-esteem and confidence, leading to diminished success in school.

In other words, the dental health of our community’s tiniest members is worth paying attention to! Here in San Mateo County, a number of issues face our children’s dental health, including an inadequate number of dentists providing care to meet demands (particularly for Medi-cal/Denti-cal eligible populations), the current reimbursement rates are insufficient and exacerbate the gap in services, and appointment wait times can be months at community clinics. We have heard of this difficulty firsthand from parents of children served by First 5 San Mateo County-funded programs, particularly with non-English speaking families.

The solutions are simple, which means access is the issue at hand. So how do we help close this gap in our community? Across the country, agencies at the county, state and federal levels are recognizing the need for additional resources to assure access to dental care, improve oral health, and integrate with overall health efforts, including First 5 San Mateo! We have been funding a dedicated Oral Health Initiative since 2012 and have been purposefully investing in the development of county-wide solutions using both capacity-building and collective impact strategies.

Most recently, we contributed funding toward the creation of an Oral Health Strategic Plan for the county. First 5 San Mateo commissioners, staff and grantees have furthered the investment by leading the efforts of the San Mateo County Oral Health Coalition as conveners and champions. The coalition, which includes more than 30 organizations and individuals from the oral health, medical, philanthropic, and other fields, has accomplished the launch of the strategic planning process in December 2015 at a planning retreat attended by more than 60 cross-sector stakeholders, an environmental scan of the current data and resources on oral health in San Mateo County, and the release of the Final Oral Health Strategic Plan in October 2016.

Our commitment to the implementation of the Oral Health Strategic Plan includes funding support for two new county staff positions: an Oral Health Strategic Plan Director and a Dental Program Specialist. These key staff positions will oversee the implementation of the Strategic Plan, including initiating the ongoing convening of local oral health stakeholders, whose support and direction will continue to be integral to the Plan’s success. We’re excited to have new members join our team who can focus on this dental crisis!

In parallel with the systems-level work being done through the Oral Health Coalition, First 5 San Mateo County continues to raise funds for its signature Oral Health investment, the Virtual Dental Home Program, led by Ravenswood Family Health Center. This innovative dental model focuses on prevention through parent education, bringing preventive services to the community and providing children with a dental home.

So far, this has been a worthy investment! More than 1,125 children in San Mateo County have been served by the Virtual Dental Home since First 5 San Mateo County began the funding model in 2012. The Virtual Dental Home is on target to serve 600 children ages 1 through 5 this year in San Mateo County with First 5 funding, including an expanded focus on children with special needs.

To learn more about the importance of children’s dental health, check our site here or contact Michelle Blakely at mblakely@smcgov.org.