News Analysis/Children's Dental Health Month highlights need in Missouri for more dental care service

Friday, February 1, 2008

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story could be interpreted as suggesting SCHD will offer dental services when the new building opens. The department hopes to be able to offer the service eventually, but still does not have a dentist to staff the dental suite available. This story was revised at 4:40 p.m., Friday, Feb 1.

February is National Children's Dental Health Month and on Friday, Feb. 1, more than 51,000 dental professionals will provide free dental services to more than 500,000 children from low-income families, at more than 2,000 sites nationwide.

There are some children for whom the program comes far too late.

Deamonte Driver, a 12-year-old homeless child, died last year in a District of Columbia hospital after an infection from a decaying molar spread to his brain.

That sad fact was reported in detail in the Washington Post newspaper by Staff Writer Mary Otto. The story was picked up nationally and was the impetus for much hand-wringing by legislators over the same situation facing homeless and low-income families in nearly every state.

In a press release following the death, the American Dental Association (ADA) said, "Deamonte's death should be a wake-up call to the nation. It is a national disgrace that in the 21st Century America, millions of children don't have access to basic preventive and restorative dental care. Thousands of these kids suffer from profound dental disease -- they can't eat or sleep properly, can't pay attention in school because they're suffering from chronic infections and the resulting constant pain that could have been prevented and easily relieved through treatment."

Locally, Saline County Health Department (SCHD) has been working hard on a project to improve dental care.

A well-equipped dental suite was included in the plans for their new building, and will be available for use when the building opens.

The problem is not in finding patients who need dental services.

The urgent problem is finding a dentist to supply them.

Locally and nationally, dentists are in short supply.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) statistics from 2001 show 35 percent of the nation's dentists are over age 55, with 9 percent over age 65.

The numbers haven't improved in the intervening years.

More than 40 million people in the U.S. live in Dental Health Professions Shortage Areas (DHPSA) -- Saline County is on that list.

In fact, 26 percent of Missouri residents live in a DHPSA, far more than in several surrounding states: only 2 percent in Nebraska, 11 percent in Oklahoma, 10 percent in Illinois and 9 percent in Arkansas.

Only seven states have a higher number of residents in DHPSAs than Missouri. It would take, according to DHHS, more than 300 new dentists in the state to remove shortages.

With about 30 percent of dentists in the state aged 55 or over, and just one public dental school that graduated only 80 students in 2001, it won't happen soon.

The ADA is confident the acute shortage of care in underserved areas can be addressed.

Noting that the cost of education (dental school grads average $145,000 in student loans at graduation) and the start-up cost of opening a dental practice is a part of the picture (as much as $1 million), ADA believes that with the right incentives from the Small Business Association, more health care providers can be attracted into DHPSAs.

Or, as SCHD's Stephen Allegri said at a recent Board of Trustees meeting, "It may be time for us to 'grow our own' dentist(s) by encouraging local high school students to pursue a career in the field and come back to their home towns (in Saline County)."

As he has in the past, Allegri cited statistics indicating the difficulty of obtaining dental care for low-income patients in Saline County, in particular, is a problem that just won't go away.

Contact Kathy Fairchild at marshallhealth@socket.net

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