Questions for Dzifa Adjaye-Gbewonyo, Health Statistician and Lead Author of “Dental Care Utilization Among Children Aged 1–17 Years: United States, 2019 and 2020.”
Q: Why did you decide to look at children’s dental examinations and cleanings during the pandemic?
DAG: We know that the COVID-19 pandemic required dental providers to make changes to their services, and this affected access to dental care. There have also not been many recent estimates from National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) data on preventive dental care in children, especially covering such a broad age range. So, looking at child dental care and how it changed between 2019 and 2020 was a priority research topic for the Division of Health Interview Statistics, which is responsible for the NHIS.
Q: How did the data vary by age groups, income level and region?
DAG: By age group, children aged 1-4 years had the lowest rate of dental examinations and cleanings in the past 12 months in both 2019 and 2020. They also experienced the largest decrease between the two years, from almost 59% to 51%. This contrasts with older children where the percentage ranged between 88% and 92% across age groups for the two years. By income level, fewer children living in families with lower incomes had a dental examination or cleaning in 2020 compared to 2019, while there was no significant difference between 2019 and 2020 for children with family incomes of at least 400% of the federal poverty level. Regional estimates showed that annual preventive dental visits were highest in the West and Northeast in 2019 and remained high in the West in 2020 but decreased significantly in the Northeast and in the South.
Q: What is the main takeaway message here?
DAG: I think the big takeaway is that overall, fewer children in the U.S. had an annual dental examination or cleaning in 2020 than in 2019, but the change was not the same in all segments of the child population. Some subpopulations were affected more than others, especially young children, children from lower income families, and children living in the Northeast and South. It is also important to note that we can’t fully attribute the changes to the COVID-19 pandemic because the data refer to preventive dental care in the past 12 months. So, some of this time frame took place before the pandemic.
Q: Do you plan to have adult data available for the same years?
DAG: Yes, adult data on dental care were collected and are available for 2019 and 2020. Some estimates of these data are already accessible on the NHIS website, including a data brief on urban-rural differences in dental care in 2019 and interactive quarterly and biannual estimates released through the NHIS Early Release Program. Additional analyses are also planned.
Q: Do you think the downward trend will continue into 2021?
DAG: It’s difficult to say what the trend will be in 2021 since a number of conditions have changed. Though the dental care questions rotated off the NHIS in 2021, they will return in 2022 so it will be possible to look at these data again in future years.