Following government recommendations that schools should play a more central role in improving oral health in children, Dr. Chig Amin, the principal dentist and owner of the Epsom Dental Centre, shares his views on where responsibility should lie.

Oral health report card provides an opportunity for us all

An eye-opening report on the state of the dental health of Britain’s three-year-olds has a lot of parents worried. While we should take the findings of the survey seriously, I think we should look at it as an opportunity to get parents, dentists and schools working together to make sure that no kids have dental problems at such an early age.

Specifically, the Public Health England survey found that 12 percent of three-year-old children had tooth decay of varying severity, with some parts of the country doing very well while others fared more poorly. In response, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) issued a guideline that made recommendations on what can be done to combat this problem. Some of these recommendations proved to be quite controversial, especially those suggesting that schools should play a bigger role in improving the oral health of Britain’s children.

The loss of baby teeth matters more than many people think

The initial reaction from some people was to argue that maybe this isn’t such a big deal because baby teeth will fall out eventually. That is a common misconception. While baby teeth obviously do fall out, taking care of them is still important and severely neglecting them can have immediate and long-term consequences. First of all, cavities can be quite painful for children and sometimes even result in them eating less. The premature loss of baby teeth can also cause the position of permanent teeth to shift.

The survey raises an important issue but it gives us a chance to look at some things that should raise awareness of dental health issues and help all of our children.

I wholeheartedly support many of the recommendations that NICE made. Implementing parts of the “Whole School” approach, for example, makes sense not only for oral health but health in general. Ensuring that children have access to free drinking water and non-sugar foods is a positive step. Providing some students with toothbrushes and the right type of toothpaste is praiseworthy as well.

Schools play a key role in oral health education

The most important role of schools and teachers is to help educate children and teachers on oral health issues. They should work closely with dentists to make sure that they can provide effective information for students and parents alike, including teaching them how to take care of their teeth, stressing the importance of regular dental checkups and dispelling fear of the dentist. Schools and dentists can also work together on dental charity events, such as National Smile Month, to promote positive oral health messages to children.

We should also remember that it would be very challenging for a single teacher to supervise a class of thirty brushing their teeth. I suspect we would get a lot of kids doing a poor job whilst the teacher is looking at someone else! Parents are much better positioned to provide one on one supervision of their child’s teeth brushing, especially up until the age of seven or eight. If a parent is unsure of exactly how their child should be brushing or how often, then they can always get in touch with a local dentist for some practical advice.

I applaud NICE for recommending that the educational efforts of schools should include providing details of how to access local dental services because in the end, dentists are the only ones who can reliably diagnose problems and treat them.

We all must do more to protect our children

This survey should be a wakeup call to parents, teachers and dentists alike. Fortunately, all of the problems can be addressed if we work together, so there is no need to be overly concerned. Part of our efforts should include trying to come up with ways to better help the children in high-risk areas where a disproportionate share of the problems could be found.

In addition, dentists everywhere need to embrace their responsibility and think of ways in which they can do more to help children. This can include visiting schools, possibly providing free screenings or coming up with ways to make their practices child-friendly.