Let’s get serious about our oral health crisis

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“Using dental therapists is a financially viable solution for making sure that low-income, uninsured and underinsured kids have access to high-quality dental care.” – Sarah Wovcha, executive director of Children’s Dental Services, a clinic that provides dental care to children from low-income families in Minneapolis

COMMENTARY: As a summer graduate of the Community Health Worker Training Program at Santa Fe Community College, I know firsthand how important it is to ensure that low-income kids and their families have access to health care. For my final class project on a pressing health issue in our state, I chose the lack of access to dental care.

Peggy Jugmahansingh

Courtesy photo

Peggy Jugmahansingh

So it was with much anticipation that I went earlier this month to hear Sarah Wovcha talk about the incredible impact that dental therapists have had in her home state of Minnesota. Ms. Wovcha was one of several of speakers who presented evidence of how dental therapists are improving oral health in their communities. The presentation was hosted by the N.M. Dental Therapist Coalition.

Dental therapists are highly trained mid-level professionals on the dental team who can perform routine and preventative services in a role similar to that of physician assistants in medicine.

It’s no secret that our state is facing an oral health crisis. More than half of New Mexico’s residents have advanced gum disease — the highest percentage of any state in the country. One out of three of our state’s third graders have untreated dental disease, which can cause unnecessary suffering and pain.

Oral disease can lead to serious health conditions if left untreated, including heart disease, blood clots and diabetes. Many times, people with dental problems end up in emergency rooms, adding avoidable health-care costs and straining the already overburdened resources of hospitals.

These problems can be prevented if people have regular access to routine and preventative dental care. Unfortunately, access to quality dental care is a major problem in New Mexico. A 2017 analysis found that nearly every county in New Mexico faces a dental shortage.

We need a long-term, scalable approach that allows people across our state to have access to regular preventative dental care and treatment for dental problems.

Listening to Ms. Wovcha and the other presenters gave me hope that our state could begin to address the oral health crisis by allowing dental therapists to train and practice in New Mexico.

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Dental therapists are practicing in multiple states, including Alaska, Minnesota, Washington and Oregon, and an increasing body of evidence shows that dental therapy is a safe, effective solution.

For example, a recent study found that the introduction of dental therapists into remote Alaska Native communities has had a stunning impact on oral health. In many of these communities, the need for restorative care, like fillings, has decreased because dental therapists have been effective at preventing tooth decay from occurring in the first place.

In Minnesota, dental therapists are working in both rural and urban areas, increasing access to quality dental care and saving money for both private practice dentists and nonprofit health clinics.

Ms. Wovcha’s clinic in Minneapolis was one of the first to use dental therapy in Minnesota, and as she said, “It’s turned out to be a wonderful decision – both for our young patients and the financial stability of our clinic.” Adding that their dental therapists have provided care to more than 18,000 patients, she enthusiastically spoke of how the wait time for appointments was decreased by two weeks, and overall patient time with the provider was increased by 10 minutes.

It’s time for New Mexico to get on the dental therapy bandwagon. The New Mexico state Legislature came very close to passing a dental therapy bill in the 2017 session. The bill was developed through a first-of-its-kind collaboration between public health advocates, dental hygienists and dentists. It had bipartisan support from policymakers and widespread support across the state.

The momentum and support behind dental therapy has continued to grow in New Mexico – and evidence from other states such as Minnesota shows this is a solution that will work.

I encourage our governor and state Legislature to take action in the next session to end New Mexico’s oral health care crisis now.

Peggy Jugmahansingh is a community health worker who has been an avid advocate for social justice for more than three decades. A native of the twin Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago, she relocated to Albuquerque in June 2014 from southwest Florida. Her earlier career was in the communication field. She’s now re-careering into community health and engagement. Agree with her opinion? Disagree? We welcome your views. Learn about submitting your own commentary here.

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