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Action for Dental Health

Dental Program in Washington State Serves At-Risk Children

December 31, 2014

A program that connects underserved children with dentists in Washington State has dramatically improved the oral health of the state’s most at-risk populations during the past 20 years.

Healthcare partners in Spokane County created the Access to Baby and Child Dentistry (ABCD) program in 1995 because they were concerned about the amount of preschool children who were not regularly visiting dentists. Through prevention and early intervention, the program reduces the need for costly treatment by finding dental homes for children six or younger who are covered by Medicaid. 

During its first 15 years, the rate of Medicaid children who received dental care has more than doubled, from 22 percent to 50 percent. The rate of untreated decay among low-income preschoolers was cut in half from 26 percent in 2005 to 13 percent in 2010.

Because of the program’s success, every county in the state has adopted it.

“The most important thing to me is that we’re teaching prevention,” said Dr. Lisa Block, a dentist in Gig Harbor. “We’re noticing significantly lower rates of tooth decay and cavities in children who are most at risk. This program is truly having a positive impact on the children in our communities and schools.”

Dr. Block, who has been involved with the ABCD program for 12 years, is the “dental champion” for Pierce County. A pediatric or general dentist in each county participating in the ABCD program receives training from the University of Washington to identify, recruit, train and mentor local dentists for the program.

More than 2,000 dentists, dental students and residents have been trained since 1995 to provide ABCD’s early pediatric dental techniques and preventive services throughout the state.

ABCD collaborates with agencies that work directly with Medicaid-eligible children to identify those who can benefit from the program. Those agencies include Head Start, WIC, child care centers and early childhood programs, community resource and referral programs, hospitals, community health centers and social service agencies. Information about the program is also shared through community service offices, health fairs, childbirth education classes, new baby packets and school nurses, among other referral sources.

Program partners include the Washington Health Care Authority’s Medicaid Program, the University of Washington School of Dentistry, the Washington Dental Service Foundation, the state Department of Health WIC Nutrition Program, the Washington State Dental Association, local dental societies, local health jurisdictions and community organizations.

The program has proven so successful that in most counties, children on Medicaid can be seen by a dentist within 24 hours, according to Dr. Block, who treats about 400 ABCD children each year.

“ABCD has significantly changed the access-to-care issue in Washington State,” she said. “You’re providing these families with a dental home, so they have a place to go if they have questions about their oral health. It’s our hope that through education and prevention efforts, ABCD children will go into adulthood cavity-free.”