The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 24, 2013

Tooth decay in state children growing worse

By Robb Murray
Free Press Staff Writer

MANKATO — Ben Medrano, a dentist at the Open Door Health Care Center in Mankato, says the best way to truly understand recent news that a growing number of Minnesota third-graders have tooth decay is to tell the story of a recent case. One that involves tears.

Medrano said he encounters patients — including children — who haven’t been able to afford dental care or who were never taught proper oral hygiene.The clinic serves low-income patients.

“They have a higher rate of decay than most children,” Medrano said. “It can be demoralizing because we do see so many patients who hear what we say, they try and do it, but they get discouraged because there’s so much to take care of.”

One recent case shows how, when neglected, poor oral hygiene can have a devastating impact on the life of a person’s teeth.

Medrano recalls the case of a mom whose two daughters, ages 9 and 6, required heavy doses of complicated dental care because of the amount of tooth decay.

He called mom into a room, showed her the X-rays, told her how bad it was.

“And she just started crying,” Medrano said. “She just didn’t know. And I had to tell her, ‘This is not your daughter’s fault.’”

That mom’s breakdown that day inspired her and her daughters to take charge and take control of their oral hygiene. And now, after another visit or two, their repair work that drove mom to tears will be complete, and they’ll be on to regular visits at six-month intervals.

Tooth decay among kids is getting worse. The Minnesota Department of Health recently released a report showing the tooth decay rate among third-graders is about 55 percent, 2 percent higher than the national average.

The report, called “Minnesota Oral Health Plan: Advancing Optimal Oral Health for All Minnesotans,” is available at the Department of Health website. It outlines the populations most at risk for oral disease, the obstacles to routine dental care, and strategies for improving oral health and reducing millions of dollars of unnecessary medical costs.

In the Mankato area, Open Door already has begun a prevention program aimed at reducing the rates of tooth decay among all children.

Sarah Kruse, Open Door CEO, said they discovered when they were partnering with Minnesota State University’s dental hygiene program that more and more kids were coming in with serious dental care needs, the kind of needs for which they’d be referred to the dentist.

Because of this, Kruse said they developed a prevention program that went into the schools and, with a parent’s permission, screened kids for dental problems and educated them on proper hygiene.

The program was piloted three years ago. Now, they reach nearly every school in Mankato as well as schools in St. Peter and Nicollet. Last year, they screened 1,000 kids.

“Our hope is that as we do this each year and teach prevention, maybe we’ll see fewer of those kids,” Kruse said.

She said they’re also hoping to expand the dental program. They’re hoping to announce the physical expansion of Open Door as well as add another dentist.

The health department’s report said that, not surprisingly, low-income children bear the greatest burden of oral diseases in the state.

“Children eligible for free or reduced lunch were almost one and a half times more likely to experience tooth decay and almost three times more likely to have the decay go untreated than more affluent peers,” the report’s executive summary said.

  “One encouraging finding is the proportion of Minnesota third-graders with untreated tooth decay (18 percent) was lower than the national target (26 percent).”

Another telling figure: There was $148 million in emergency department charges in Minnesota between 2007 and 2010 for preventable, non-traumatic conditions that could have been handled in a dentist’s office.

“The figure points to possible barriers to routine oral health care such as the lack of affordable dental insurance and clear information regarding public program dental benefits, along with the undervaluing of the importance of dental health to overall health,” the report’s executive summary said.

In a statement issued in conjunction with the report, Minnesota Commissioner of Health Ed Ehlinger said: “It is simply unacceptable to have so many of our children and adults negatively affected by these preventable dental conditions. We have to do a better job investing in public health and access to routine dental care. If we do this, we can significantly reduce oral disease and health care costs in Minnesota.”