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Reporter: Oral health has become important gateway to other issues on his beat Date: 11/28/16

Paul Sisson

By Mary Otto

For low-income elders, dental care can be very hard to find. Medicare does not include routine dental benefits and seniors living on low or fixed incomes may lack the money to pay out of pocket for care. Untreated tooth decay causes pain and contributes to tooth loss, poor nutrition, social isolation and declining overall health.

In San Diego, an innovative nonprofit dental clinic that recently opened in a senior center is aiming to address the problem. Reporter Paul Sisson, who covers health care for the San Diego Union-Tribune paid a visit and provided readers with an engaging story that captured the spirit of the place and highlighted the deep needs it aims to serve. In this Q and A, Sisson talks about his work on the dental clinic feature and shares some wisdom on how he stays on top of his busy health care beat.

Q: You have delved into everything from San Diego County’s continuing fight against prescription drug abuse to the intricacies of Medicare enrollment to government efforts to cope with the threat of the Zika virus. What prompted you take the time to visit the new dental clinic at the Gary and Mary West Senior Wellness Center?

A: They pitched the story, and I thought it sounded innovative. Also, I have felt for some time that dental issues are not covered as often as they should be, and especially for seniors.

Q: You led your story with a patient you met at the clinic, 68-year-old Avelina Greeno, who was thrilled with her new dentures. What touched you most about her story? What surprised you most about the clinic itself?

A: She was just ... delightful. So happy, so full of positivity. I couldn't resist. What surprised me about the clinic was how busy it was. They seemed like they were making an effort to serve as many people as they could.

Q: Helping to answer the need for dental care for the community’s low-income elders is an important mission, but as you wrote, the clinic has a bigger goal as well. Organizers hope that by improving the seniors’ oral health, they may improve their overall health as well. What more can you say about this “holistic” approach to dental care and whether organizers plan to measure its effectiveness?

A: I have learned by attending AHCJ sessions that the mouth is a key gateway to overall health. Untreated dental problems often lead to deeper problems, especially infections, so efforts to address oral health can have a multiplier effect on overall health.

Q: For your story, you interviewed Beth Truett from Oral Health America, and used that that organization data to present a bigger picture about the oral health needs of seniors across the country. Truett mentioned the efforts to add dental benefits to Medicare. As a journalist who has done a lot of writing about Medicare, what do you believe about the need for such benefits and how realistic are the chances of adding them?

A: I think the key will be showing that adding dental care can prevent costly hospitalizations. And, I think project's like West's are important in building the cost/benefit argument that helps add a benefit like dental.

Q: You seem to be very fluent across a wide range of health topics. One day you are writing about overcrowding in a local hospital emergency room and on another you are covering an effort to establish a breast milk bank to help premature babies.  What wisdom can you share on how you stay on top of a wide-ranging beat?

A: Attend AHCJ meetings as often as you can. Realize that, with the Internet, the world of research is at your fingertips in ways that journalists just 15 years ago could only dream of. Try to find outside sources to test what people are telling you. Follow the best journalists in your field, the ones presenting at annual AHCJ meetings, on Twitter.