Nearly Six Million Floridians Aren’t Smiling

Sadly, there’s little to smile about in Florida this February, which is National Children’s Dental Health Month. The state of children’s oral health in Florida is abysmal, indeed some would say in crisis. The latest data clearly demonstrates that the oral health of Florida’s children is among the worst in the nation. Even worse, because oral health is directly linked to overall physical health, there most certainly will be long term consequences for many. Because children are our future, this should be a concern to everyone.

Florida Leads the Nation in Dental Health Professional Shortage Areas – Almost 6 million Floridians live in communities that do not have an adequate number of dentists. Nearly all (66 out of 67) Florida counties have these shortage areas. Dental care becomes much more difficult when you must travel long distances or wait an extraordinarily long times just to be seen.

Highest Rate of Hospital Emergency Room Visits for Non-Traumatic Dental Care – When parents have a child with dental pain or infection and they cannot afford to bring the child to a dentist, parents choose to visit a hospital emergency room (ER) which must see the patient.

In 2020, Florida had the highest rate of these visits for those aged 14 and below (26.7 per 10K people) compared to all other states for whom we have 2020 data. The national rate in 2019 (the last year for which we have national data) for children aged 14 and below was 27.3.

Due to lack of preventative care, Florida hospitals billed over $380 million for 116,980 ED visits. Most are wasted dollars since the only care provided for patients is antibiotics and pain medication and the parents are advised to bring the child to dentist the next day.

It’s already known that the child is in emergency care due to the inability to afford or locate a dentist who accepts Medicaid. Tomorrow’s search will result in the same outcome, that being lack of care.

Life Threatening Child Hospitalizations for Dental infections – Preventable dental issues can become life threatening, requiring hospitalization for intravenous antibiotics and pain medication. In 2021, Florida children had 3,165 hospitalizations for preventable dental issues and Florida hospitals billed out over $167 million for this care.

6th Worst in Nation for Unfilled Cavities – Many states conduct surveillance studies of oral health for unfilled cavities in third grade children. From the most recent data in 2017, Florida third graders ranked 6th WORST in the nation with 25% having unfilled cavities.

4th Worst in Nation for Medicaid Utilization, which is the number and percentage of children who received at least one dental visit in the year. In 2021 there were approximately 2.8 million infants and children up to age 20 enrolled in Florida’s Medicaid program, which means that over 1.7 million Medicaid enrolled children did not have a dental visit in 2021.

Why is good oral health in children important?

A healthy mouth is more than a pretty smile and fresh breath. Decades of scientific literature clearly document the relationship between poor oral health and dental pain in children with increased school absenteeism and poor school performance. Missing and untreated cavities also lead to poor self-esteem in children. The way out of poverty for many poor children is education leading to better paying jobs but pain inhibits learning.

Florida Must Solve this Oral Health Crisis

The oral health care system in Florida is broken for millions of children. It’s long past time to address short term crisis intervention and longer term solutions.Floridians for Dental Access is a bipartisan coalition of organizations and individuals working to solve Florida’s oral health crisis. We strongly support evidence-based best practices in modern dentistry and dental hygiene that increase patient health, improve affordability and safely expand access to care through choice and workforce solutions.

How You Can Help

There are many ways you can help right now. Share this message broadly with your personal and professional networks.This untreated public health crisis needs far more attention. You can also chip in to fund it will take to bring forth change. Finally, join the conversation by following American Children’s Campaign and Floridians for Dental Access on social media. Or if you’d like to help in other ways, please respond to this email and we’ll get back with you shortly.


Written by Frank Catalanotto, DMD

Dr. Frank Catalanotto is founder and president of Floridians for Dental Access, a bipartisan coalition of more than 60 organizations and individuals actively working to solve Florida’s oral health crisis. He is a Professor in the Department of Community Dentistry and Behavioral Science at the UF College of Dentistry. He graduated from the College of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and completed a post-doctoral research fellowship in pediatric dentistry at Harvard School of Dental Medicine and Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Boston. The opinions he expresses in this commentary are his own and do not reflect the official opinions of any organization with which he is associated.