When your employees become parents, they receive an onslaught of information about their child’s growth markers and health checkups from immunizations to well-child visits. When it comes to dental care, however, less than half of parents receive professional advice on when to start taking their child to the dentist.

And lack of guidance is only the beginning of the problem. Access to dental care has been an ongoing challenge for U.S. children, but during the pandemic, dental care emerged as children’s greatest unmet health need, according to a recent study published in JADA.

What does this mean for your employees and their children, and what can you do to support them?

The pandemic’s effect on pediatric oral health

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, dental disease among children was rampant:

The pandemic made these problems worse by stressing the financial systems that delivers dental care with income and job losses. Households were three times more likely to identify dental care as an unmet health need as a result of the pandemic compared to medical care, according to a JADA study. The authors found a significant association between the probability of unmet child dental care and pandemic-related household income or job loss.

About 40% of families reported the loss of a job or decrease in income due to the pandemic. Before the pandemic, children from families with lower income or who were on Medicaid were twice as likely to have cavities than children from higher-income households. Whether due to lost or decreased income, fear of contracting COVID-19 and mixed communication from health organizations, dental care visits dropped in 2020.

Many people were able to stay covered for medical procedures due to robust signups for Medicare and Medicaid pandemic. But cost remains the major barrier to receiving dental care, since Medicare and Medicaid packages rarely cover many dental procedures. Although access to pediatric dental care has grown for families with public insurance since the early 2000s, kids in low-income families are still less likely to visit the dentist regularly. Additional barriers include difficulty finding a willing dentist, transportation and geographic proximity to dental providers.

Potential solutions for children’s unmet oral health needs

As a benefit administrator, you can invest time into communication efforts that may bridge knowledge gaps among your employees. Here are a couple of ways you can get started:

  • Talk about timelines. Inform your employees about recommended timelines for pediatric care to guarantee they get the information they need, whether or not their dentists communicate that information.
  • Design your package. When you’re designing your benefits package, cover important preventive services for kids, like sealants and fluoride treatments.
  • Highlight plan features. Encourage employees to take advantage of aspects of their insurance, like teledentistry coverage, that can make pediatric care easier. Did you know that 75% of pediatric dentists offer virtual services, compared to only a third of general dentists?
  • Share materials. Explore Delta Dental’s wellness resources and share a selection of helpful articles and flyers in an email or on an internal site. You can even highlight assets that are made for kids, like MySmileKids and Grin! for Kids.
  • Be consistent. When communicating helpful information to your employees, using multiple channels can be confusing and difficult to keep track of. Find a simple routine for sharing, like posting information on an internal webpage with monthly or quarterly email notifications, so that your employees always know where to look.

How Delta Dental invests in communities

To help dentists make investments in their communities, the Delta Dental Community Care Foundation awards several million dollars in grants each year to increase access to care. These awards enable underserved individuals, including children, to get preventive and restorative treatments in accessible locations. More than 250 organizations received funding from the Delta Dental Community Care Foundation during the COVID-19 pandemic, totaling $11 million to provide relief. Many of these clinics support and serve children.

These Access to Care grants fund activities designed to remove barriers to seeking care such as distance, cost, and even fear. The grants can be used to set up mobile or pop-up clinics in a local community, provide dental care in underserved clinical settings, fund outreach programs or offset costs for clinics that routinely provide care to underserved populations.

What comes next

There will probably be some relief for underserved communities, including children, soon. The U.S. economy seems to be recovering. The national unemployment rate is projected to fall to 5.3% by the end of the year.

But the problems highlighted by the pandemic shouldn’t be ignored. As a benefits administrator, you can’t be expected to fix all of the problems in the American economy or health care industry. Still, by highlighting resources and keeping your employees informed, you can positively affect the employees you work with and their children.