It’s past time to solve the dental epidemic

New Mexico children are going to school with toothaches and sore gums. And we wonder why they have problems learning to read?

Dental disease is a hidden epidemic for both children and adults in New Mexico and many other states. It causes pain, suffering, lost school and work time, emergency room visits, and health complications including heart disease.

A 2016 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation rates New Mexico highest of all 50 states for dental problems in children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that New Mexico has the United States’ highest prevalence of gum disease — 52.79 percent. Conditions are worse for Native Americans than other minorities.

New Mexico doesn’t have enough dentists in enough places, but that’s only part of the problem. Low income New Mexicans cannot afford dental care. Only about half of dentists take Medicaid. They say it’s because the reimbursement rate is too low, and it probably is, but there is also evidence that they simply don’t want to. And they should not be forced to.

The solution, if it can get through the legislature, is dental therapists, mid-level practitioners who can safely perform extractions, drill and fill cavities, and do other basic dentistry. The safety and effectiveness have been shown by years of experience in other countries. Dental therapists are recruited from underserved communities and go back home to work. They work under the supervision of a dentist, but the dentist does not have to be in the building.

We even have schools ready to train them: several community colleges (including CNM, NMSU, Eastern and San Juan) offer dental hygiene programs that likely could be expanded to accommodate the additional training.

A national gathering of dental therapy advocates took place in Albuquerque recently. Attendees included representatives of major charitable organizations such as Pew and Kellogg, several universities and leaders of what has become a passionate national movement. The lead organization in New Mexico is Health Action New Mexico (

Like any other licensed healthcare practice, dental therapy requires approval by the legislature. The state’s Dental Association has been fighting this for years. In 2017, a compromise was reached and the Dental Association reportedly endorsed the compromise, but some suspect that may have been just lip service (pardon the pun). A bill got through the House and died in a Senate committee. It’s not clear why it was stopped. No other interest group opposes dental therapy. Dozens of organizations support it.

Ironically, dentists probably would not lose money if dental therapy were licensed in New Mexico. Therapists would treat patients dentists don’t want to treat in places dentists don’t want to live. The therapists would refer patients to dentists for more complex, more interesting and more lucrative procedures.

So far Alaska and Minnesota are the only states that have legalized dental therapy. Reports are that they have relieved massive amounts of suffering. And data are beginning to show economic results as patients are no longer prevented by their symptoms from going to school or work.

The New Mexico Dental Association provides free dental care in an annual charity event called the Mission of Mercy. It says the 2017 event provided more than $1.1 million in dental care to 1300 patients. That is about one percent of the people who need that care.

One unknown is whether all New Mexico dentists fully understand this issue and the current position of their association.

Suggestion: next time you go to your dentist, ask him to take his fingers out of your mouth for a minute. Then ask him if he knows the statistics and if he has taken a position on the dental therapy issue. If he thinks dental therapy is a reasonable idea, ask him to contact the state association and say so.

Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2018


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