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Finding stories in the challenges of access to oral health care Date: 11/11/19

Bart Pfankuch

By Mary Otto

When it comes to oral health, every state has its own unique challenges – and its own stories, too.

“A lack of access to proper dental care in South Dakota is driven by both geography and income,” writes Bart Pfankuch in a recent piece that takes a deep look at the issue in his own state.

In the story, which Pfankuch wrote for South Dakota News Watch, a nonprofit, public-service journalism group, readers learn about the struggles of patients who visit a mission clinic that serves the Rosebud Indian Reservation. They find out about initiatives such as the Delta Dental Mobile Program that aim to bring care to at-risk communities across the state. They hear from experts including a state epidemiologist, who help put the state’s unmet dental needs into a broader context.

In this Q&A, Pfankuch, a veteran journalist, editor and writing coach who serves as content director of South Dakota News Watch talks about his well-received story and shares some tricks of the trade he has learned in his 30 years of reporting .  

Q: Oral health sometimes gets overlooked in broader health care coverage. What inspired you to take a look at the complex issues that are shaping access to care and oral health disparities across your state?

A: A big part of my job as a journalist is trend-spotting, so I keep an open eye and an open mind at all times about what is happening statewide, regionally and nationally and then look for problems or issues that are playing out in South Dakota. I received a couple press releases from national charities that a donated money for rural dental care in the Dakotas, and that got me thinking. Also, my editor’s wife had a personal experience in helping a low-income mother who she mentors get much-needed dental care and, combined, those two things made me curious enough to do some research.

Q: In this piece, you explore poverty, geography, provider shortages, racial disparities all in a very readable way. Was there a source that was most helpful to you in getting your arms around the big picture you paint for the story?

A: Finding and interviewing the few key sources who are most knowledgeable on a topic is one of the biggest challenges we face as journalists. It requires a combination of thought, research and aggressiveness. I typically seek out what I call the "Big Three” -- an association or state agency expert(s) who knows the local landscape and can provide data and refer other good sources; a practitioner or person who works directly with people affected by a problem; and the “real people” who are enduring the tip of the spear of an issue.

Q:  The data you include puts the human impact into perspective. Do you have advice for reporters who might want to locate similar data for their own states?

A: A “clip check,” or a review of published research on paper or mostly online, is a mandatory place to start. The end notes and citations in research often lead to original sources of data. Look for reports compiled by your state Health Department or national data from the CDC. Beyond official materials, remember to ask every single source you interview for facts and figures and always probe them for specifics, especially in regard to money.

Q: You found dental providers and other experts with great stories to tell. What surprised you most in your reporting?

A: I began the reporting with a thesis that rural dental health was the greatest challenge in South Dakota, a mostly rural state with huge gaps between population centers. My research showed that income was a critical barrier to dental care, which made it both a rural and urban problem. Also, I was saddened to hear of how many children are not getting good dental care, especially on Native American reservations.

Q: Can you tell us about some of the feedback you have received? Are you planning more oral health coverage?

A: I’ve heard from a number of providers and association representatives who were thankful for the piece and hopeful it could spur policymakers to do more to create opportunities for oral care for low-income South Dakotans, and also to encourage more providers to accept Medicaid. Reader reaction, mostly on social media, was strong in terms of sharing personal stories but also in expanding the discussion.

Q: Any more wisdom to share with fellow reporters who might want to take a deep dive into oral health in their own states but who are not sure where to start?

A: Other than what I’ve already written, I would simply share a few buzz phrases I often use in my writing-coaching seminars. More thought, more work leads to improved articles. Be curious, courageous and confident. Always seek out one more source than you think you need. Your first draft is never your final draft. Only good reporting can lead to great writing. Work harder, and you’ll have more fun. Everyone needs an editor. Read stories aloud to check for meaning. Focusing on accuracy, depth and completeness will enable you to write with authority. Other than that, work hard and have fun.