Temple University is testing a new way to reach families who haven't gotten early dental care for their young children.

The researchers reviewed information for Pennsylvania children in the Medicaid program. About 10 percent end up getting dental care in a hospital or clinic and often need intravenous sedation or general anesthesia, said Amid Ismail, dean of Temple's Kornberg School of Dentistry.

"That is a very costly course of treatment," Ismail said. "By reducing that 10 percent we can save a lot of money and then we can increase the base of children who have a dental home without increasing the total cost."

Temple is building a dental registry of families using Medicaid claims and information on emergency-room admissions. UnitedHealthcare is providing the data for the registry. The insurer and its United Health Foundation together donated $1.75 million to launch the demonstration called "Project Engage."

The researchers are looking to enroll children who are under age 6 and have visited a doctor but have never seen a dentist. Ismail said those children are the ones at risk of waiting until an emergency to see a dentist for the first time.

Ismail said Temple will train community outreach workers who will do their prevention education largely one-on-one in family homes. He said, in the past, outreach by phone or mail often hasn't been enough.

"There's a large segment of the population that's fatalistic about dental care: 'I can do nothing about it. My child will have disease,'" Ismail said. "There's also the lack of knowledge about what is tooth decay and what makes it happen."

Initially, the program will enroll children in five ZIP codes near Temple's school of dentistry in North Philadelphia: 19121, 19122, 19132, 19133 and 19140.