News Release 

Brushing away oral health disparities in America's rural children

Children living in rural America are less likely to receive preventive dental care than their urban counterparts, according to a study from investigators at the Medical University of South Carolina and the University of South Carolina.

Medical University of South Carolina

Research News

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IMAGE: A little girl has her first visit to the dentist. view more 

Credit: Dave Buchwald. CC by-SA 3.0 license, available at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0.

Meaningful legislation addressing health care inequities in the U.S. will require studies examining potential health disparities due to geographic location or economic status.

An interdisciplinary team at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) and the University of South Carolina (UofSC) report in the Journal of Public Health Dentistry that rural children are less likely to receive preventive dental care than urban children. Using samples from 20,842 respondents from a 2017 National Survey of Children's Health, the team determined the existence of an urban-rural disparity in U.S. children's oral health. This disparity can have serious consequences for children's oral health.

"When preventive care is delayed, the persistent exposure to things like refined sugars can promote bacterial growth," said Amy Martin, DPH, a professor in the College of Dental Medicine at MUSC and senior author of the article. "When that bacteria grows, it can exacerbate the cycle of decay, which can only be disrupted by visiting the dentist for regular cleanings and parent education."

The findings of this particular study are important to informing legislative change. Preparations for the 2020 Surgeon General's report on oral health are currently underway. The original report, released in 2000, was a pivotal call to action to prioritize oral health in the U.S. As a result of this report, significant pieces of legislation were passed that addressed the nation's inequities.

However, work still needs to be done to address inequities in oral health care for children. The National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services has also released oral health reports in response or as a prelude to the Surgeon General's reports. In 2003, its report found that fewer rural children visited dentists annually than urban children. This statistic motivated the MUSC-UofSC team to investigate whether health disparities still existed between rural and urban children.

"There has not really been a comprehensive study on what's happening among rural children, compared to their urban counterparts, in the last five years," commented lead author Elizabeth Crouch, MD., Ph.D. , assistant professor and deputy director of the Rural and Minority Health Research Center in the Arnold School of Public Health at UofSC. "This article may influence policy decisions in the near future."

To understand oral health discrepancies between rural and urban children, the investigators used data from the 2017-2018 National Survey of Children's Health, a nationally representative sample of children from the U.S. Along with collecting information about geographic location, family income, oral health condition, family structure and race, the survey asked about access to oral health care: Had a participant's child received oral health care? Did the child regularly see a health care provider for preventive care such as checkups and dental cleanings?

The investigators found that rural children were less likely to have had a preventive dental visit than urban children. Furthermore, compared with urban kids, they were less likely to receive fluoride treatments or dental sealants, and their teeth were in poorer condition.

"It's really important for researchers to examine access, utilization and outcomes among racial ethnic minorities and vulnerable populations living in rural areas," said Crouch. "Unless we quantify these differences, there's no way to know what kinds of policies that we need to be advocating for."

Additionally, children who were uninsured or had caregivers with a high school education or less were less likely to have had preventive dental visits. These finding suggest that to improve preventive care in kids, policies should focus on increasing family income or dental insurance coverage.

Importantly, this study confirmed previous studies that found racial/ethnic minorities were less likely to receive preventive dental care than nonminorities.

"Ultimately, illuminating these disparities, both quantitatively and qualitatively, will inform policy that can eliminate these disparities in oral health care in rural children," said Crouch.

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About MUSC

Founded in 1824 in Charleston, MUSC is the oldest medical school in the South as well as the state's only integrated academic health sciences center with a unique charge to serve the state through education, research and patient care. Each year, MUSC educates and trains more than 3,000 students and nearly 800 residents in six colleges: Dental Medicine, Graduate Studies, Health Professions, Medicine, Nursing and Pharmacy. The state's leader in obtaining biomedical research funds, in fiscal year 2019, MUSC set a new high, bringing in more than $284 million. For information on academic programs, visit musc.edu.

As the clinical health system of the Medical University of South Carolina, MUSC Health is dedicated to delivering the highest quality patient care available while training generations of competent, compassionate health care providers to serve the people of South Carolina and beyond. Comprising some 1,600 beds, more than 100 outreach sites, the MUSC College of Medicine, the physicians' practice plan and nearly 325 telehealth locations, MUSC Health owns and operates eight hospitals situated in Charleston, Chester, Florence, Lancaster and Marion counties. In 2020, for the sixth consecutive year, U.S. News & World Report named MUSC Health the No. 1 hospital in South Carolina. To learn more about clinical patient services, visit muschealth.org.

MUSC and its affiliates have collective annual budgets of $3.2 billion. The more than 17,000 MUSC team members include world-class faculty, physicians, specialty providers and scientists who deliver groundbreaking education, research, technology and patient care.

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