Newspaper’s economic health series explores role of oral health

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.

Photo: David Joyce via Flickr

The oral health of a state or community can serve as an interesting lens for examining economic health. That is the message that a series from newspapers in the Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. chain recently brought to its readers in Oklahoma.

In its Overextended Oklahomans project, reporters have been exploring many aspects of the everyday struggles many state residents face in meeting basic needs.

In addition to weekly installments that have examined overuse of payday loans, growing childhood hunger and a growing lack of prenatal and neonatal services, a recent feature highlighted the dearth of dental care that has led to many Oklahomans suffering from untreated disease. A companion piece examined the financial challenges many local governments have had in maintaining water fluoridation systems in their communities.

Many factors contribute to the problem. A shortage of dentists plagues many parts of the state but is particularly acute in its vast rural areas, the newspaper found.  

“Even well-populated areas like Oklahoma and Tulsa counties don’t have enough dentists according to the state health department,” wrote Caleb Slinkard, a member of the CHNI reporting team for the series. “Blaine, Cimarron, Cotton, Dewey, Grant, Harmon and Jefferson counties have none.”

Many state residents are going without public or private dental benefits, as well as the money to pay out of pocket for care. Oklahomans lack dental benefits at roughly twice the national rate, the newspaper found. Only in West Virginia did fewer working-age adults visit a dentist in 2016.

A state program that offers student loan repayment assistance to dentists who work in underserved areas and treat Medicaid patients has shown some success, but shortages remain. State Medicaid dental benefits for poor adults are limited to emergency extractions.

Budget cuts also have had an impact on children’s oral health as well. The state recently ended a dental health education program that reached more than 90,000 children last year, said John Wilguess, executive director of the Oklahoma Dental Foundation.

In another blow to disease prevention efforts, some communities have cut their water fluoridation programs to save money. Others never started them in the first place out of concern over the cost, Slinkard reported.

Nonprofits have been attempting to address the needs with charity care, but their resources also are stretched. “At one place we frequent, near Norman, we set up in the middle of a field filled with cows,” Wilguess noted.  

“We were in Watonga two weeks ago, and a lady who is undergoing treatment for breast cancer walked a mile and a half to come to us. When we found out, we of course drove her home.”

A free two-day Mission of Mercy clinic held in February was a reminder that the shortage of care is not confined to Oklahoma. Patients also came from Texas, Kansas and Colorado.

“There were more than 1,000 people in line at 4 a.m. not angry, shoving or demanding something – just asking to be seen and treated,” Wilguess said.

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