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Children’s dental health in crisis: considering the role of prevention and pharmacy

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In the face of an ever-growing crisis in children’s dental health crisis, Bas Vorsteveld considers how pharmacists’ preventative intervention  can make a big difference…

Many of us know that oral health plays a hugely important role in our general health and wellbeing. We’re continuing to see a rise of cosmetic dentistry such as veneers and teeth whitening[1] but fundamentally, it shouldn’t be forgotten that oral health encompasses so much more than aesthetics. Our diets, the oral hygiene products we are using, and our brushing techniques are all elements that impact our oral health.

It’s been hard to miss in the news that there is a dental crisis in the UK, with ‘dental deserts’ leaving some areas with over 3,000 patients for every NHS dentist[2]. With oral health being of such importance to our overall health[3], it’s only reiterated to us at Haleon that we must continue to promote access to dental care and understanding of better dental health.

As I’ve mentioned in previous articles for Pharmacy Business, an understanding of preventative, self-care is hugely beneficial, not just to improve health inclusivity but to help reduce these current burdens on both healthcare and dentistry professionals. We know that at Haleon, we, and the consumer healthcare industry as a whole, have a responsibility to empower people to equip themselves with the tools and information to participate in their own and loved ones’ health – and dental health is such an important part of that.

Power of prevention

Now that kids across the country are back in school after the summer break, I’m reminded of the responsibility we have for our children’s health, and how the approach we take should differ to adult health. The dental crisis is particularly acute among children. As many as one million children have never visited the dentist before, and 6.5 million children in England have not been seen by an NHS dentist for at least a year[4]. These figures are made even more shocking when we realise that tooth decay is largely preventable, yet many children are having tooth extractions at an incredibly young age.

My own children are now young adults, and as a parent, I believe you should always put your child first. However, parents, teachers and healthcare professionals need to be empowered and educated to be able to support the children in their lives’ dental health care effectively. Encouragingly, most parents are focused on protecting their children’s overall health. For instance, research shows that 53% parents buy vitamins for their children[5], with the two top requirements being supplements that aid immunity[6].

This support can be provided by vitamin C and zinc which also help to support the health of bones and teeth, aided by vitamin D [7]. We want to see the same approach to oral health care, and help parents to understand that children need tailored oral health products and advice to prevent more serious oral health issues in the future. However, we also recognise there are many barriers that can make it harder for parents to find the right support with their children’s dental health.

Preventative advice is key to avoiding problems further down the line. This advice can include recommendations to reduce sugar intake and encourage regular brushing. Our Shine Bright campaign,  is focused on helping both parents and children to support a change in behaviours and prevent children from having to go through more invasive dental treatments.

Through the campaign, we aim to educate school children on improving their dental health habits, including brushing techniques. But we also want to show parents the added benefits of oral health products designed for children, which have tailored flavours of toothpaste and a specific design of toothbrushes, to facilitate use and encourage improved children’s dental health routine and behaviour. We encourage pharmacists to point parents to our website to help them to access quick and easy information to improve dental hygiene.

Support for pharmacists

The widespread national “dental deserts”, where many are finding it increasingly difficult to access an NHS dentist, has had a particular impact on lower income families who don’t have the option to consider private support. Haleon, in partnership with several charities such as the Oral Health Foundation, the Dental Wellness Trust, amongst others, have already donated milk teeth toothpaste samples, toothbrushes and educational resources to the communities in the areas that have seen the most dental disease, however we know that these are not the only touchpoints for those struggling.

In the face of this, pharmacists can often become the first point of contact for oral health advice. The back-to-school period is an ideal time for pharmacists to help parents and children by offering clear advice on what dental care products are best for children. By working with parents, this will allow them to easily identify the best options for their children, such as toothbrushes with soft bristles and toothpaste with fluoride. Self-guidance should also be provided alongside these products, recommending the best option for each individual child.

This education on oral health is clearly as important for the parents as it is for the kids, in order to fill the current knowledge gap. It is critical that parents understand the benefit for their children through making informed choices with the right products and solutions and that they feel supported in doing so.

In summary, there is a joint effort that we can support to ensure that children’s dental health isn’t simply a top-down approach but a universally prioritised objective. Better accessibility, and understanding is essential and can be further accelerated by government support. We continue to work with organisations such as the Dental Wellness Trusts to give children access to dental screenings.

But by targeting the problem at the first hurdle, and supporting preventative education, we can begin to alleviate the burden on dentists, GPs and pharmacists alike, and allow consumers to take control where possible. Haleon wants to ensure that there is a widespread understanding across healthcare professionals and parents that there is a solution. The crisis in children’s dental health right now can be somewhat eased, and improving preventative care is the first step toward this.

Bas Vorsteveld is Vice President and General Manager Great Britain and Ireland at Haleon.

References:

[1] https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/new-realself-aesthetics-interest-survey-reveals-40-of-uk-adults-are-considering-a-cosmetic-treatment-in-the-next-12-months-outpacing-the-us-past-and-planned-procedures-highest-among-uk-millennials-300731527.html

[2] https://www.libdems.org.uk/press/release/rise-in-dental-deserts-leaves-millions-struggling-to-get-nhs-dentist-appointment

[3] https://www.who.int/health-topics/oral-health#tab=tab_1

[4] British Dental Association, 2nd May 2023, https://bda.org/news-centre/press-releases/Pages/Dentists-Government-sitting-on-side-lines-as-child-oral-health-gap-widens.aspx

[5] https://www.food.gov.uk/sites/default/files/media/document/food-supplements-consumer-research.pdf, p.32

[6] https://www.food.gov.uk/sites/default/files/media/document/food-supplements-consumer-research.pdf, p.15

[7] Food Standards Agency, 2018

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