This is the first known study, to our knowledge, that examined dental care use for Medicaid-enrolled children with chronic conditions with an emphasis on body system-based subgroups. We compared dental care use for Medicaid-enrolled children across 10 chronic condition subgroups. Collectively, our data support two findings that are new to the dental health services literature: (1) dental care use is heterogeneous across chronic condition subgroups; and (2) the determinants of dental care use vary across different types of dental care.
There were three main findings in regards to specific chronic conditions. The first is that when there were differences children in certain subgroups (e.g., catastrophic neurologic, endocrine, craniofacial, hematologic conditions) were significantly less likely to use dental care than other children with chronic conditions who did not have these particular conditions. Children with these chronic conditions may be at the greatest risk for disparities in dental care use. There are two possible explanations. Many of these children have developmental or acquired cognitive deficits and may have difficulty cooperating during dental visits. Dentists could be less willing to treat these children because of inadequate training [22
]. Another explanation is that caregivers may have high levels of stress associated with managing the child’s other systemic health care needs [23
], which pushes oral health down on the priority list. It is particularly worrisome that children with catastrophic neurologic conditions were significantly less likely to use preventive dental care. This finding has oral health-related implications especially if the child has a poor diet or behavioral comorbidities that make it difficult for caregivers to brush the child’s teeth regularly with fluoridated toothpaste. These findings appear to conflict with previous work suggesting that Medicaid-enrolled children with intellectual or developmental disabilities are equally as likely to use preventive dental care as those without [13
]. A possible explanation for this inconsistency is that children with intellectual or developmental disabilities present with varying degrees of disability. The previous study did not control for this factor while the current study did.
The second finding is that children with respiratory, musculoskeletal, ear/nose/throat, or digestive conditions were more likely to use most types of dental care compared to children with other types of chronic conditions but without these spe-cific conditions. Children with respiratory conditions (e.g., asthma, cystic fibrosis) may require medications or have enamel defects – factors that increase their risk for dental caries [24
]. Children with musculoskeletal conditions (e.g., arthritis) are also at risk for oral health problems [27
]. Children with ear/nose/throat conditions undergo procedures involving the mouth and oral structures, making it plausible that these children receive team-based medical care. These factors may increase caregiver awareness of the importance of dental visits or the likelihood of dental referrals by physicians, though there are no published data to support these hypotheses. Studies from the medical literature report low adherence to inhaler medication for Medicaid-enrolled children with asthma because of caregiver misunderstanding of medications, which makes the former explanation unlikely [28
]. We recognize that the risk ratios from our models are small (ranging from 1.02 to 1.13). However, on a population-level, small risk ratios are meaningful, especially when the prevalence of a particular chronic condition is high [29
]. The prevalence of respiratory conditions was over 80% and over 40% of children in our study had a musculoskeletal or ear/nose/throat condition. Identifying the mechanisms underlying higher rates of dental use for children with specific types of chronic conditions in future studies may provide insight on how to improve utilization rates for children in other chronic condition subgroups that are not as likely to use dental care.
The third finding is that there was no difference in dental use for children with diabetes or cardiovascular conditions compared to children with other chronic conditions but without these conditions. Non-significant differences in dental care use may not be a clinically significant problem as long as children are receiving appropriate dental care. However, this is unlikely, especially because these chronic conditions have oral health-related sequelae that make dental visits important. For instance, the link between pediatric diabetes and periodontal disease [30
] underscores the importance of regular maintenance and monitoring therapy that might require additional dental visits for children with diabetes. Future studies should investigate whether no differences in dental care use across subgroups actually means that children in these subgroups are receiving appropriate dental care.
In addition to the findings related to specific chronic conditions, we found that children who used preventive medical care are significantly more likely to use all types of dental care, except for complex restorative care. While there is potential for selection bias [32
], this finding reinforces the importance of strengthening the clinical ties between pediatric medicine and dentistry [33
]. The mechanisms between use of medical and dental care have not yet been elucidated and require further investigation.
In term of the research significance of the our study, any dental care use, a standard measure of access to dental care services, may be a more appropriate proxy for use of diagnostic or preventive dental care services rather than routine or complex restorative dental care. When developing oral health intervention and polices, it may be most effective for planners to specify the particular types of dental care the program seeks to improve use of by taking into consideration the differential determinants of dental care. This maximizes the likelihood that children have appropriate access to preventive as well as restorative dental care when needed [34
As with all studies, our investigation has strengths and limitations. The primary strength is that we used validated methods, 3M Clinical Risk Groups, to identify children with chronic conditions and to adjust for the severity of those chronic conditions in the models. In addition, we adopted an a priori conceptual model that helped to guide model covariate selection. Finally, we examined use of different types of dental care to obtain a more complete view of dental utilization for children with chronic conditions. The major limitation is the lack of clinical oral health data, which precluded us from determining whether the observed utilization rates were appropriate. This limitation can be addressed with future studies by collecting clinical data and linking these data with dental claims data. Another limitation is that we measured dental use during a single calendar year, which provides a snapshot rather than a longitudinal perspective on dental use. Future studies might examine utilization trends over time across the different chronic condition subgroups. Finally, because this was an observational study, there is potential for residual confounding, which we attempted to minimize by adopting a conceptual model that we used to develop our empirical model. In the future, there is the potential to link claims data with survey data that might be used to collect social and behavioral measures that potentially confound the relationship between chronic conditions and dental use.