America suffering from oral health nightmare

By Nisa Islam Muhammad -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Aug 7, 2012 - 12:30:45 PM

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Oral health care in America continues to be a crisis. Tooth decay is the most common chronic disease among children, five times more prevalent than asthma.
( - When was the last time you went to the dentist?

Chances are you may be among the one in five Americans that have an untreated cavity, and be related to the 39 percent of children and 52 percent of teens who have had a form of dental restoration such as a root canal, according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics.

If that sounds bad, consider that more preschoolers not elementary schoolers, but preschoolers are showing up to dentists with 10 or more cavities, many needing anesthesia because the work needed is so severe.

The problem of oral health care is so bad that that 50 million Americans live in areas where they can’t easily visit a dentist, former Surgeon General David Satcher explained at a conference on unmet oral health needs sponsored by the Morehouse School of Medicine and the Sullivan Alliance to Transform America’s Health Professions.

“We now have an opportunity (with the Affordable Care Act) to improve access to dental health services,” said Dr. Satcher. “But how do we put in place a health care system that meets the needs of all? Can we, in fact, increase the supply of oral health care providers by expanding the opportunity for people to serve? What the ACA said is that people should be able to practice to the full extent of their potential.”

“We now have an opportunity to dramatically increase coverage,” Dr. Satcher observed. “But adding dental benefits will not translate into access to care if we do not have providers in place to offer treatment.”

Dr. Satcher expressed concern about the ability of the current dental workforce to meet demands for dental care. As part of the provisions enacted under the Affordable Care Act, more than five million additional children will be entitled to dental health benefits.

Just 20 percent of all practicing dentists accept Medicaid patients. In addition, the federal Health Resources Services Administration estimates there is a current shortage of about 10,000 dentists.

Lauren Gordon from Atlanta starts Howard University Dental School in August. She’s excited about entering a profession that is so critical to overall health.

“I see how important oral health care is and how people overlook it,” she told The Final Call. “I had a lot of dental problems and I saw how oral health is connected to overall health. Teeth are a source of pride or embarrassment. Clean teeth and bad breath can affect a person’s self-confidence. I want to help people. With dentistry, unlike other medical professions, you can have patients for life. I want that.”

Oral health care in America continues to be a crisis. Tooth decay is the most common chronic disease among children, five times more prevalent than asthma.

At the conference, Dr. Satcher emphasized oral health can dramatically affect how people speak, eat, or smile, and more health professionals should be trained in providing elements of oral health care. He stressed that children, minorities and the poor are disproportionately affected by the oral health care crisis: Thirty-seven percent of Black children and 41 percent of Latino children have untreated tooth decay, compared with 25 percent of White children. American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest rate of tooth decay of any population: five times the national average for children ages two to 72 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native children ages 6 to 8 have untreated cavities, more than twice the rate of the general population. More than a third of all poor youngsters ages 2 to 9 have untreated cavities, compared with 17 percent of children who are not poor.

“Oral health care is not valued until there is an appearance issue or pain. Then when you give them the cost, they withdraw. There is very little importance for baseline care like cleanings and fillings. It is only an issue when it hurts. Then it costs too much,” Dr. Laura Muhammad told The Final Call.

“Lack of oral care has an effect on heart disease and diabetes. The stuff between your gum line is an infection. Your body doesn’t do well fighting an infection. Bleeding gums and pussey infections can cause blood clots. It allows particles to move through the blood and continues unless treated and removed. Gum treatment costs and it requires time for several visits. People want good treatment but they don’t want to spend the money or take the time to get it done.”

More than a dozen states are exploring creating new mid-level dental providers, also known as dental therapists, to expand access to preventive and routine dental care.

“Access to oral health is not what it should be in this country,” said Dr. Louis Sullivan, chairman of the Sullivan Alliance to Transform America’s Health Professions, and former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“With the Affordable Care Act, millions more will have access to oral health care. We, as health professionals, must lead the effort so that we are prepared to meet the need. We need now to develop strategies to provide those services.”