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Reporter covers dental care challenges faced by people with disabilities Date: 02/18/15

Elizabeth Simpson
Elizabeth Simpson

 By Mary Otto

Finding dental care for people with special needs can be tough.

Dentists with the willingness and skills to treat them are often scarce. Medicare and Medicaid benefits are frequently inadequate. Patients who need to undergo general anesthesia in a hospital because they are frightened or physically unable to lie still in a dental chair often face particularly high barriers to getting dental treatments.

Elizabeth Simpson offered readers of The Virginian-Pilot a detailed look at this issue in a January story that centered on the experiences of a local woman and her family.

“Going to the dentist used to be a simple, routine task for Lauren McAllister, one her family took for granted since she always had good insurance,” Simpson wrote.

“But after she suffered a brain injury in February 2010, dental visits became a trial and a quest.”

As Simpson noted in her story, the challenge is playing out in many places across the country as more people with disabilities are living in their own homes instead of nursing homes and other institutions.

Her observation comes as a reminder that other reporters might want to look into this issue in their own communities. In this Q&A, Simpson offers additional insights that might serve as an inspiration. And she shares some wisdom on how to skillfully weave complex details into a story without slowing down the narrative.

Q: What got you thinking about the difficulties that disabled people living in communities face in getting dental care?

A: I've been covering the movement of Virginians with intellectual disabilities from state training centers into the community, and wondered how smoothly medical services transferred with them. So when a woman called to talk with me about the difficulty she had getting dental services for her daughter with a brain injury, it seemed like the perfect time to write the story.

Q: Was it hard to find a family and dentists to talk with you about this sensitive topic?

A: It wasn't hard to find the family, but a couple of dentists were reluctant to talk. One who retired said once people find out you provide such services, you get swamped with patients because the demand is high.

Q: Your piece ran with a photo essay by Steven Katz that added another level to the narrative. Can you talk a little about how the collaboration worked and what you think the photo essay adds to the project?

A: It always helps to put a human face on the subject. And I thought his photos were so telling because a caregiver was helping her eat lunch, and the woman tended to "pocket" food in her mouth, which caused more dental problems.

Q: Have you heard from readers since the story ran? If so, what are they saying?

A: Yes, a doctor affiliated with a local hospital called to say in many cases, dental problems end up landing people in the ER with infections and other problems. A doctor from a state institution called to talk about a state subsidized monthly clinic at a training center people could go to for help. It's only once a month, and institution-based but still a help.

Q: There were lots of moving parts to your story. You had to explain the complexities of different types of sedation, the limits of public insurance benefits, the kinds of disabilities that might make a routine trip to the dentist difficult. Yet you managed to skillfully weave everything in and keep the story moving. Any words of wisdom for fellow reporters facing similar writing challenges?

A: It helped to talk with several different dentists, both retired and still working. The retired ones seemed more willing to talk about gaps in the system. I tried to keep the human story flowing throughout the policy part.

Elizabeth Simpson covers health issues at The Virginian-Pilot. She has been with the paper since 1989 and has covered education, family and social issues in the past.