October is National Dental Hygiene Month, and we’re celebrating dental hygienists across Kentucky!

Dental hygienists play a critical role in helping children and adults by examining signs of oral diseases such as gingivitis, educating patients on ways to improve and maintain good oral health, and providing preventative services such as providing fluoride varnish, removing of plaque, and cleaning.  However, the Making Smiles Happen: 2016 Oral Health Study Kentucky Youth tells us that many kids aren’t getting the dental care they need. Two out of five 3rd and 6th graders have untreated cavities, and there has been an increase in the number of 3rd and 6th graders in need of early or urgent dental care since 2001. For kids utilizing Medicaid or KCHIP services, the number of dentists available to them is sparse, with nearly a quarter of Kentucky dentists meaningfully participating in Medicaid.

So, how can dentists reach and provide treatment for youth in need of care? An effective solution to reach vulnerable youth and parents in urban and rural settings is utilizing public health dental hygienists.

A public health dental hygienist is a licensed dental hygienist working in a local health department who has met licensure requirements with the Kentucky State Board of Dentistry. A public health dental hygienist provides preventative services, educates on improving and maintaining good oral health, and examines signs of oral health disease just as a traditional dental hygienist. Additionally, public health dental hygienists’ driving mission is to refer all children they see to a local dental home to receive routine care. As of right now, there are currently 19 public health dental hygienists working with 183 schools across 34 counties in Kentucky. Of these youth, 92% of patients have been referred to a local dental home that will accept their coverage, and among these youths there has been a 90% retention rate.

The question we always ask at Kentucky Youth Advocates, “Is it good for kids?” We believe public health dental hygienists are an asset within communities by providing preventive care, valuable dental health education, and, most importantly, the connection to a regular and necessary dental home.