“We need better access to dental care for our children!”
West Central Initiative (WCI) staff members heard this repeatedly while researching strengths and gaps in early childhood care and education in communities throughout their region.
Their surveys – conducted as part of an effort to establish early childhood coalitions in the nine-county west central area of Minnesota – confirmed a lack of oral healthcare for families with low incomes. That led WCI, with the early childhood coalitions, to form The Early Childhood Dental Network (ECDN) in 2005. ECDN, comprised of 45 active members from 36 different regional organizations, has worked collaboratively on increasing education about and access to oral health ever since.
The six Minnesota Initiative Foundations, including WCI, have helped form 80 early childhood coalitions across Greater Minnesota. This network of coalitions serves as a vehicle to advance public policy, exchange ideas, share promising practices, and create a statewide groundswell of support for young children.
“Dental disease is one of the most prevalent, yet preventable diseases among young children,” says Jane Patrick, ECDN coordinator. “Research shows that children living in poverty and those accessing public programs experience higher rates of tooth decay and fewer dental visits than their more affluent peers. The regrettable result is painful for the child and expensive for the system.”
The Early Childhood Dental Network is a nine-county, multi-disciplinary collaborative project. ECDN partner Apple Tree Dental conducts mobile outreach clinics throughout west central Minnesota, providing services to families that have had difficulty accessing oral healthcare for their children.
Educating and Increasing Access
ECDN focuses on prevention through awareness and education of children and their caregivers and on enhancing access to oral health care for low-income children. The group has developed a variety of fun and educational oral health trainings with supporting materials, which have given thousands of children, parents, teachers and caregivers a better understanding of dental care.
Implementing educational efforts has proved easier than increasing access. More than 40 percent of young children in west central Minnesota are eligible for Minnesota health care programs (including Medical Assistance and MinnesotaCare), but most area dentists do not accept public payments.
To address this lack of access, ECDN supports mobile outreach clinics where low-income children can receive dental care. In the last 12 months almost 1,600 children were seen at outreach clinics throughout the region.
The coalition also works with Apple Tree Dental in Hawley and Fergus Falls and Caring Hands Dentistry in Alexandria to expand community-based dentistry, and with Children’s Dental Services to create and expand school-based oral healthcare for poor families. ECDN also helps medical clinics implement oral health screenings during well-child exams.
In addition, ECDN is working with legislators to promote a statewide policy change for better access to oral healthcare.
Sharing Work Plans
ECDN members collaborate on annual work plans, ensuring that the group functions efficiently and effectively, and keeping all members focused on achieving short- and long-term goals. ECDN partners identify and commit to pursuing specific strategies and projects each year.
“This collaboration succeeds because we work hard at making sure everyone at the table knows they are needed and gets something out of being there,” says Nancy Jost, early childhood coordinator, WCI. “We brainstorm without judgment, we implement, we evaluate and reevaluate, and we get input from our customers regularly.”
Funders include: Dakota Medical Foundation, Delta Dental Foundation, Detroit Lakes Kiwanis, the Minnesota Early Childhood Initiative, Otto Bremer Foundation, the Frank W. Veden Charitable Trust and West Central Initiative.
The Early Childhood Dental Network is designed to increase awareness and education to all children and caregivers about the importance of oral health, and to increase access to dental care. West Central Initiative improves West Central Minnesota through funding, programs and technical assistance. www.wcif.org/?ECDN