New research findings demonstrate that school-based dental sealant programs, in which students receive preventative oral care while at school, are cost-effective in protecting at-risk children’s permanent teeth from decay.
Collaborating with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Division of Oral Health, the study explored the cost-effectiveness of school-based dental sealant programs, examining the outcome among children, with and without sealants, and the number of cavities acquired at the end of four years.
Dental sealants are resin-based material applied to the chewing surfaces of children’s permanent teeth to protect the enamel from decay. As part of a school-based dental sealant program, licensed dental providers, with parental permission, apply the sealants on students for free during the school day. The program typically bills public or private insurance where available to cover some of the cost.
Christina Scherrer, professor of systems and industrial engineering at Kennesaw State University, is part of a team that included researchers from the CDC that found that the cost savings from future cavities and productivity losses from parents leaving work to take their child to the dentist outweighed the costs of running school-based dental sealant programs.
The study, “Evaluation of School-based Dental Sealant Programs: An Updated Community Guide Systematic Economic Review,” will be published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine this spring.
“A dental filling for a cavity costs several times as much as a sealant, so this is a situation where the preventative sealant program could save money and avoid the pain and inconvenience of tooth decay,” Scherrer explained. “We performed an extensive review of published studies on these programs and, taking into consideration a wide variety of circumstances under which they operate, we are confident that they are a good investment of public health funds.”
Offered in low socioeconomic areas, particularly in school districts in which more than half of the student population is eligible for federal free or reduced-price meal programs, school-based dental sealant programs reach many students who have no access to dental care, explained Scherrer.
“We looked at how much these sealants will save in later medical reimbursements,” Scherrer said. “Students without access to dental care may show up at an ER with tooth pain, needing a root canal or extraction, which in turn might be billed to Medicaid.”
According to Scherrer, dental sealants have already shown results in reducing tooth decay among school-aged children. Their study demonstrates the cost savings and indicates how sealants are currently underutilized, especially among children at higher risk for cavities. The team hopes their findings will increase the funding and the number of these preventative dental sealant programs in schools.
As an industrial engineer, Scherrer’s aspect of the study focused on quantifying the benefit of school-based dental sealant programs through mathematical and economic modeling. Most of her research has been in collaboration with the nonprofit/public sector, and she has worked on this particular research study for the past 18 months.