LENS Health and Wellness

Oral Health Priorities

Encouraging Low-Income Families to See a Dentist

Improving the oral health of Northeast Ohio's poorest children means accomplishing an elusive first step: actually getting those kids to the dentist.

Suchitra Nelson, PhD, has a strategy to do just that and is testing it with a new grant of up to $3.6 million from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.

"It's not as easy as it would appear," said Nelson, PhD (GRS '84, nutrition; '88, '92, epidemiology), a professor and assistant dean in the School of Dental Medicine.

For more than a decade, Nelson has focused on epidemiological projects to improve oral health among poor, minority and special needs children and adults.

More than half of Ohio children enrolled in Medicaid do not visit a dentist annually, according to the Ohio Department of Health. Nelson's goal has been to increase the number, which has remained virtually static since 2006.

"We have tried to reach children through education, reach parents with information in various ways and tried helping dentists reach out to the community—but all with only limited success," she said.

Her next target: pediatricians.

Nelson is using the three year grant to conduct a clinical study involving about 1,000 Northeast Ohio families and the 70 pediatricians who care for their children.

She'll work on the project with co-investigators from the university's School of Medicine and Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing and University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital's UH Rainbow Care Connection.

Nelson said they'll train pediatricians and nurse practitioners to deliver important dental-health information and give them materials to encourage families to take their children to the dentist.

"Most low-income families don't go to the dentist but do take their child to a pediatrician once a year," Nelson said. "That is how we will finally break through."

—Mike Scott