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Pediatrician’s Guidance on Dental Health Gives Low-Income Parents Reason to Smile

May 06, 2004 — The prevalence of tooth decay among toddlers of low-income families is nothing to smile about. The good news, according to a University of Utah School of Medicine study, is that when pediatricians educate and provide guidance to parents, children’s oral health significantly improves.

“Poor oral health habits, which are known to be a contributing factor to dental disease, are common in underserved populations,” said Karen A. Ortiz, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics and the study’s lead author. “Our goal is to find ways to prevent early childhood cavities.” She said many parents don’t realize they have to pay attention to oral hygiene of babies as young as 6 months old, or when the first tooth emerges.

Ortiz presented key research findings at the Pediatric Academic Societies conference in San Francisco on May 2.

Researchers conducted a telephone survey among parents of infants and toddlers who visit the South Main Public Health Center, a Salt Lake City clinic that provides health care to underserved women and children, most of whom are Hispanic immigrants. South Main is operated by the U medical school and the Salt Lake Valley Health Department.

Parents were surveyed before and after South Main revised its “health supervision visit form” to include oral habit prompts that encouraged resident pediatricians to question parents and provide them with guidance about the oral hygiene of their children. The pediatricians were also encouraged to give fluoride prescriptions if necessary.

A total of 389 surveys were obtained?195 before the form was revised and 194 afterward. Results showed that parents who received guidance were significantly more likely to brush their children’s teeth and brush them more often.

Those parents said their doctors advised them on brushing their children’s teeth. They also reported reduced consumption of juice, soda, and other sugared beverages by their toddlers. No significant difference resulted in other oral habits, such as bottle weaning and allowing a baby to sleep with a bottle.

The study emphasized that increasing tooth-brushing and limiting consumption of sugared drinks are important components in promoting good oral health habits among young children. “Guidance can change reported parent behaviors,” said Ortiz. “And physicians are more likely to provide such guidance if oral health is included on the checklist of patient visit forms.”

In addition to Ortiz, the other investigators in the study are: Karen F. Buchi, M.D., associate professor; Charles Hoff, Ph.D., professor; Carrie Byington, M.D., associate professor; Jonathan Castillo, former U medical student; and Dustin Watson, research assistant, all from the U medical school’s Department of Pediatrics.

Ortiz and her colleagues are conducting a related study to determine the rate of cavities among toddlers seen at the South Main clinic and to see if flouride intervention will help prevent tooth decay.