Roadblock to oral health no longer a matter of resources

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Mason Atkin, 3, sits in the chair at his father's dentist practice, Bears Ears Dental. Although Lee has built in access to dental care and education with his father, Dr. Lee Atkin DDS, many in Moffat County still lack in education about oral preventative measures.

Quotable

“There’s a lot of people that have insurance, really good insurance through Twentymile or Trapper and there’s just not that emphasis and that awareness to do the preventative measures.”

— Northwest Colorado Dental Coalition Executive Director Janet Pearcey about educating the community about oral health preventative care

Editor's note: This story has been corrected from its original published version. Seventeen percent of the 1,300 Moffat County students surveyed last year reported having a regular dentist. The percentage was incorrect in the first version of the article.

Three years ago the roadblock to achieving good oral health for all Northwest Colorado children was a lack of resources and financially feasible care options.

While there remains an alarming number of local children who continue to suffer from dental diseases, the root of the problem has switched from one of resources to one of education about preventative care.

In addition to the Northwest Colorado Dental Coalition in Craig, there is now a clinic in Steamboat Springs, making access more available to people in Grand and Jackson counties. A pedodontist — a doctor who specializes in pediatric dentistry — arrived in the area last summer and accepts Medicaid.

With resources growing, advocates for dental health are now focusing their efforts on educating community members about preventative measures.

Crickett Dewall, a hygienist at Bears Ears Dental for more than 10 years, said the most important factor is getting kids in to see a dentist at an early age.

“I like to see kids by the time they’re 2 and educate the parents,” Dewall said Tuesday. “If we aren’t able to educate them, they don’t know to bring them in.”

Fifty-five percent of patients seen by the Northwest Colorado Dental Coalition are on Medicaid CHP, and 35 percent utilize the sliding fee scale for services, making dental care more affordable for the uninsured or underinsured.

Janet Pearcey, executive director for the Northwest Colorado Dental Coalition, said there still are those in the community who have insurance but tend to let their oral health fall to the wayside.

“There’s a lot of people that have insurance, really good insurance through Twentymile or Trapper (mines) and there’s just not that emphasis and that awareness to do the preventative measures,” Pearcey said.

The preventative measures are necessary to decrease the overall cost and time spent in the dentist’s chair. But prevention starts with education.

Community programs are working toward the goal of education. An example is the Cavity-free at Three program that educate parents about taking kids to the dentist before they turn 1.

Amanda Arnold, oral health coordinator for Moffat and Rio Blanco counties through Connections 4 Kids early childhood council, said she often is surprised by the number of people who don’t know they should be taking children to the dentist by their second birthday, at the very latest.

Also startling, Arnold said, is a statistic showing that less than half of Colorado kids with Medicaid use their benefits.

“It’s all paid for. They can go to the dentist for free,” Arnold said.

Dr. Lee Atkin, DDS at Bears Ears Dental, said he’s fortunate to see kids who get routine care, but when he did work one day a week at the Northwest Colorado Dental Coalition and with an Oregon program dealing with low-income children, the biggest issue he saw was kids not brushing their teeth, and parents not monitoring their children’s oral health.

“We recommend two minutes brushing all three surfaces and then flossing,” Dr. Atkin said. He recommends brushing twice daily, after breakfast and before bed, receiving fluoride treatments, and going in for a cleaning and exam every six months.

Dr. Molly Smith, D.M.D. of Northwest Colorado Dental Coalition, said she advises parents to send children to bed with water and not juice and to begin brushing children’s teeth, or at least wiping them off, as soon as they start coming in.

“Dental diseases are 100 percent preventable,” Dr. Atkin said.

Dewall said she sees her fair share of cavities in little kids during office visits, but she has noticed a marked increase in poor dental health when reaching out to see kids who don’t have as easy access to care.

“That’s why we really push those two-year checkups,” Dewall said. “We can catch cavities when they’re little and prevent new ones.”

A report profiling the 2012-2016 community health improvement plan for Routt and Moffat counties by the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurses Association compared oral health among third-grade students receiving free and reduced lunch in Routt County, Moffat County and across the state.

Routt and Moffat counties were below the state average of 57 percent of third-graders having a history of cavities, with Routt at 48 percent and Moffat at 51 percent.

The two counties also were below the state average of 25 percent in untreated tooth decay among third-graders. Routt was at 18 percent and Moffat at 21 percent.

Forty-three percent of Routt County third-graders at the time of the study had dental sealants; that percentage was 30 in Moffat County. The state average was 35 percent.

Although the numbers concerning cavities and untreated tooth decay are down from numbers cited by Sue Birch, former CEO of the Northwest Colorado VNA, during a 2010 address to the Steamboat Springs City Council, there are still other alarming numbers.

During an oral health screening of Moffat County students in elementary and middle school last fall, Pearcey said only 17 percent of 1,300 screened said they had a dental home, meaning a dentist they saw regularly.

“That’s significant,” Pearcey said. “Oral health is not mandated by the state for children entering school, which we are very much trying to get them to require. It’s just not something people think, ‘oh, that’s important.’”

Pearcey said 34.5 percent of the Moffat County students who were screened last fall had either immediate oral health concerns or exhibited signs of something that should at least be checked by a dentist.

“Although it’s not much different from in past years, it’s still shocking,” Pearcey said.

Dewall thinks it’s important for people to understand that regular dentist visits for young kids can help them have a good experience at the dentist’s office — something that will benefit them throughout their lives. The alternative — waiting until they have a decayed tooth or other more serious problem — has the opposite effect.

“It’s not as fun to go in and have a tooth pulled as it is to go in and get a new toothbrush,” Dewall said.

Darian Warden can be reached at 875-1793 or dwarden@craigdailypress.com

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