Last month, AMPHS launched its Oral Health Program, a new initiative that incorporates free dental health services into its monthly clinical offerings. “We have seen an increasing number of community members at AMPHS with oral care needs,” explains AMPHS President and CEO Hewett Chiu, “but free dental services are often much more difficult to access than medical services.”
With so much national focus on the big-ticket items of healthcare reform, it’s easy to overlook just how vital dental care is to one’s overall well-being, not to mention the difficulty of access for the poor and uninsured. The Huffington Post reported last month on the tragic death of Kyle Willis, an unemployed, single father who simply could not afford the cost of a wisdom tooth extraction. His face “swelled like a balloon” before he went to the Emergency Room, where he was prescribed painkillers for $3 and antibiotics for $27. “Unable to afford both, he bought only the painkillers,” and soon after, “the infection spread to his brain.”
While this may seem like an extreme example, this unfortunate and entirely preventable circumstance illuminates the fissures in our current dental care landscape. The Huffington Post goes on to cite that “130 million Americans—over 40% of the population—do not have dental insurance.” And the burden on hospitals can be remarkable, a reported $2.7 billion in Emergency Department charges in a three-year period.
There has been progress. The Affordable Care Act does mandate dental coverage for individuals under 18, but the safety net for adults in need is thin to nonexistent, and even treatment for children has a long way to go toward equitability. According to a recent report by Pew Charitable Trusts, “low-income children are particularly vulnerable,” with 4 million children in 2012 having gone without dental care “because their families could not afford it.” The report’s analysis of the state-by-state delivery of low-cost sealants, which prevent tooth decay among at-risk children, finds that “most states are not meeting national goals.”
Medicaid also offers dental coverage, but that coverage varies depending on the state and is often limited to emergency treatment. Additionally, only 20% of dentists nationwide accept Medicaid.
These are some of the gaps that AMPHS hopes to fill for the Sunset Park community. Jie J. (JJ) Sun, our new Coordinator of Dental Health Services, is no stranger to these hurtles. A third-year pre-doctoral student at Harvard School of Dental Medicine, JJ has worked with diverse populations including refugees, homeless populations, and underserved communities overseas. She also coordinates oral screening programs and mission trip donations for Dentists for Humanity. “The primary goal of AMPHS’ Oral Health Program,” she says, “is to prevent dental diseases through good oral hygiene habits and a good understanding of how oral health can affect systemic health.”
Jie J Sun, our new Coordinator of Dental Health Services
JJ explains that many in immigrant communities like Sunset Park don’t have dental insurance and don’t see dentists regularly unless they have dental pain. “Poor oral hygiene favors bacterial growth, which can lead to tooth decay and inflammation in the gum surrounding the teeth, a condition known as gingivitis. Over time, if gingival inflammation persists, periodontal disease will develop and result in irreversible bone loss.” Diabetes and heart disease have also been linked to poor oral health. “Many times, the earliest symptoms of a systemic disease manifest in the oral cavity first.”
The Center for Health Care Strategies lists the individual barriers to dental care for low-income adults as follows:
- coordinating work, child care arrangements, and transportation
- lack of awareness of dental benefits
- gaps in oral health literacy
- the perception that oral health is secondary to general health
- primary care providers who may not encourage oral health care
Through counseling sessions and free oral screenings, AMPHS hopes to empower Brooklyn’s immigrant communities with more comprehensive care, the promotion of better oral hygiene practices, and the confidence to navigate the dental care options available to them. The initiative will also organize trainings for physicians on oral cancer screening and coordinate with existing community outreach programs.
“Currently, we are working with the American Student Dental Association and Chinese Student Association at NYU College of Dentistry to plan for oral screening events,” JJ says. “Dental students will be able to screen and educate community members, as well as refer those in need of treatment back to the NYU College of Dentistry for reduced costs.”
AMPHS is excited to provide these much-needed services and to participate in the growing national dialogue on the exigencies of equitable and accessible dental care.