Weaving data, human stories into compelling series on dental deaths

Mary Otto

About Mary Otto

Mary Otto, a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer, is AHCJ's topic leader on oral health and the author of "Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America." She can be reached at mary@healthjournalism.org.

Brooks Egerton

Brooks Egerton

In early 2014, a 4-year-old Dallas boy named Salomon Barahona Jr. died after undergoing sedation for a dental procedure.

The child’s death spurred Dallas Morning News reporter Brooks Egerton to embark upon what turned out to be a major reporting project – an 18-month investigation of dental safety in the United States.

Egerton sifted through thousands of records detailing patient harm and endangerment drawn from many sources: state and federal regulators, police, coroners, academic researchers, courts, litigators, insurers, dental schools and dentists themselves.

The project involved open-records requests to all 50 states and the District of Columbia, as well hundreds of interviews. With the help of data editors, Egerton also researched the systems states use to track and report dental deaths.

In the resulting seven-part series, “Deadly Dentistry,” Egerton set out to offer what he has described as a look “into dentistry’s netherworld, where professionals take chances with patients’ lives and the government largely tolerates it.”

In the series, Egerton raises questions about how many dental injuries and deaths may be going unreported across the country – and how many dentists may go undisciplined for malpractice.

“Since 2010, Texas has received at least 85 death reports. Projected out to the whole U.S. population, that’s a little over 1,000 deaths,” Egerton wrote. He described what he sees as “a national pattern… in which state dental enforcers ignore many malpractice cases and leave the public in the dark.”

In this new Q & A, Egerton offers insights into how he wrote his “Deadly Dentistry” series.

Leave a Reply