By Tamera Manzanares
A patient makes an appointment with his healthcare provider for a physical exam. During the visit, he mentions he’s been having tooth pain. It’s making it hard to eat and sleep, but he’s put off going to the dentist because he doesn’t have insurance. A dental hygienist at the same clinic meets with him briefly to assess the situation. She suspects severe tooth decay and refers him to a dentist for immediate care. He’s treated and receives additional education about protecting his oral health. He pays what he can based on his income.
Untreated, the patient’s tooth decay may have progressed into an infection with the potential of spreading to other parts of the body. This can result in serious, and in rare cases fatal, health problems and costly visits to the emergency room. The powerful link between oral health and physical health has encouraged a new health care approach that brings dental services into traditional, and more affordable, medical settings. This is happening at Northwest Colorado Health which, between locations in Steamboat Springs and Craig, has a spectrum of dental services available to residents who may otherwise go without this vital care.
Loretta Weaver and Micki Stafko-Douglas are integrated dental hygienists and part of the healthcare provider team at Northwest Colorado Health. “I see a lot of decayed, broken, loose and missing teeth,” Weaver said. “Patients are grateful they have found this resource. They get the help they need and learn how to make healthier choices for their teeth to avoid more problems.” Northwest Colorado Health’s clinics are Federally Qualified Health Centers; their goal is to provide health care to anyone who needs it in areas designated as medically underserved. The clinics accept Medicaid for all qualified services, including dental. Patients who don’t have insurance pay on a sliding scale. Helping patients prevent chronic health problems and complications – which contribute to high healthcare costs – is the driving force behind community health centers. At Northwest Colorado Health, primary care, dental and behavioral health providers work together to increase patients’ chances of attainting their best health.
Oral health disparities are profound in the U.S. While the population as a whole has benefited from major dental improvements, economic, racial, gender, age and geographic barriers prevent many people from having access to even basic dental care. Getting and keeping dental insurance can be a major challenge. Dental insurance is expensive, and usually separate from medical insurance. Medicaid in Colorado provides limited dental coverage, but few dentists accept it. Tooth decay, one of the most common chronic conditions among children, can cause pain and infections that may lead to problems with eating, speaking and learning. About one in four adults in the U.S. has untreated tooth decay, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some individuals, such as people who have diabetes or weakened immune systems, pregnant women and older adults, may be more susceptible to tooth decay or gum disease. Lifestyle choices, such as smoking or using tobacco, can increase a person’s chances of developing oral cancer and other dental problems.
“At one time, it wasn’t unusual for people in their twenties to have dentures,” Weaver said. “Today, tooth decay is very preventable, but we have to provide people the opportunity and tools to take an active role in their oral health and, ultimately, their overall health.” Preventative care, including checkups, cleanings, X-rays, fluoride varnish, sealants and education, is available at Northwest Colorado Health’s main clinics in Steamboat Springs, 940 Central Park Drive, Suite 101, and Craig, 745 Russell Street. Patients who need nonsurgical extractions and restorative care such as fillings and crowns, can receive these services at Northwest Colorado Health’s new dental clinic in Craig at 485 Yampa Avenue. To schedule an assessment with a dental hygienist, call 970-879-1632 in Steamboat Springs or 970-824-8233 in Craig.