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Reporter explains how she cultivated sources for story on senior dental care Date: 07/30/15

Hanah Cho

By Mary Otto

Millions of seniors in America struggle to find dental care. Hanah Cho met a few of them who were grateful to find care at a clinic run by the North Dallas Shared Ministries.

The patients’ frank accounts of their pain and relief, included in a recent feature by Cho, brought the issue home for readers of the Dallas Morning News.

Cho, who is now a writer/editor at the personal finance startup NerdWallet, took time to reflect on her May 13 dental story, “Bridging the Dental Care Gap for Seniors,” in this Q&A.

She offers thoughts on the challenges and breakthroughs she experienced in putting together the project. She also shares some wisdom on how she convinced people to talk about their troubles with their teeth.

Your story did a great job of exploring the significant barriers many seniors face in getting dental services. It’s a huge problem, since Medicare does not cover routine dental care and many people lose their private insurance when they retire. Still, the issue does not get a lot of attention in many discussions about health care. What got you started on this story?
At that time, I was a business reporter at the Dallas Morning News, freelancing for our Senior Living magazine because I have an interest in writing about senior issues. So I was always on the lookout for story ideas. I received an email from a dental insurer, referencing the Oral Health America report indicating that 70 percent of older Americans do not have dental insurance. That figure really hit me and I thought the larger issue of dental services among senior was a worthwhile idea to pursue, and my editor agreed.

You brought some touching personal voices into your reporting. There was patient Thelma Chappell, who said she had suffered for weeks before looking for care, and Eduardo Guerra, who got the first care of his life at the program you visited. Was it difficult to get people to open up to you about their pain and need?
I write a lot about financial issues and it's always hard to get people to open up about personal issues like that. With this story, the challenge wasn't having patients like Thelma open up to me, it was first finding them. I really didn't know where to turn at first to find patients, but once I started reporting, sources led me to public clinics like the one I featured. I found that once I explained to Thelma and others that I was trying to shed light on this important issue and the challenges faced by older Americans, they were willing to tell me their stories.

You bolstered your local reporting with good research on the wider health implications that seniors can face when they lack access to dental care as well as some national information about the problem. Were there resources that were particularly helpful that you can recommend to other reporters who may want to try stories like this in their own communities?
The folks at Oral Health America were extremely helpful. They put me in contact with local advocates and dentists that they have worked on this issue, and that led me to more sources. There are usually community organizations that provide low-cost, or free medical services to patients. You can check to see if they also have dental services or clinics. Another good source are dental schools in your community or area of coverage. They often have dental clinics. Lastly, check with your local dental association. Often, they may offer pro bono dental services for seniors.

As part of your package, you included a helpful list of resources for seniors who might be seeking dental care. Did you get any feedback or calls for additional help after the piece was published?
I had left the Morning News by the time the story was published. But I heard from sources that they found the story extremely helpful.

Looking back on that project, what surprised you most about what you found?
I was surprised at how little support/help is available for seniors with dental issues. One source told me it is difficult it is to fundraise or get attention for senior oral care. Yet this is an issue that will become larger as the population continues to age.