Give the gift of dental health

By Tamera Manzanares

The boy was 13 and had never been to the dentist or brushed his teeth. When he came to see dental hygienist Micki Stafko-Douglass, he had severe gingivitis. She cleaned his teeth and gums and taught him the basics of how to take care of his mouth – a routine process that likely will make a world of difference in the boy’s long-term health. “I sent him home with five toothbrushes,” said Stafko-Douglass, who works in the dental program at Northwest Colorado Health.

Northwest Colorado Health, which provides dental services in Steamboat Springs and Craig, accepts Medicaid and allows patients to pay for services on a sliding scale if they don’t have insurance. This is helping people of all ages and financial situations receive dental care they need but otherwise might not get because of cost.

Good oral health is important at any age, but especially for children, who are at a critical juncture for developing good habits and receiving preventative care that will significantly improve their oral health into adulthood. Tooth decay, one of the most common chronic health problems in children, can cause pain and infections that may lead to problems with eating, speaking and learning. Dental sealants, thin coatings painted on permanent back teeth, are an effective way of preventing cavities.  Sealants are applied soon after permanent molars, which are most prone to cavities, come into the mouth, typically at around age six. Although sealants have been shown to prevent 80 percent of cavities in the back teeth, about 60 percent of children don’t get them, according to the National Center for Chronic Disease and Health Promotion.  “It’s so easy and not invasive,” Stafko-Douglass said. “It’s a huge opportunity to keep kids out of the chair later in life.”

It’s never too late to develop good oral habits. Unfortunately, many adults put off going to the dentist until tooth pain or other dental problems become severe. According to survey data from the American Dental Association Health Policy Institute, more than 60 percent of people in Colorado who have not seen a dentist in the last 12 months reported cost of care as the main reason. Getting and keeping dental insurance is a challenge. Dental insurance is expensive and usually separate from medical insurance. Medicaid in Colorado provides limited dental coverage, but few dentists accept it.

Addressing the cost issue is a huge step toward reaching people who need dental care. Northwest Colorado Health has gone further by integrating dental services with primary care and behavioral health care in its clinics. Working together, primary care, dental and behavioral health providers can meet a wider range of patients’ interconnected health needs. “By having registered dental hygienists on site, we are better able to troubleshoot dental problems and make quick referrals for dental care,” explained Suzanne Holm, a nurse practitioner at Northwest Colorado Health. “Patients feel very comfortable getting dental care along with their general health care. We have gained many new patients by offering dental services.”

The American Dental Association recommends people of all ages receive regular dental visits at intervals determined by their dental provider. Frequency can depend on a person’s age and health status. People who have diabetes or a weakened immune system, pregnant women and older adults may be more susceptible to tooth decay and gum disease. Lifestyle choices, such as smoking or using tobacco, can increase a person’s chances of developing oral cancer and other dental problems.

Preventative dental care, including checkups, cleanings, X-rays and sealants, is available at Northwest Colorado Health’s main clinics in Steamboat Springs, 940 Central Park Drive, and in Craig, 745 Russell Street. Patients who need more extensive care, including nonsurgical extractions, fillings and crowns, can receive these services at Northwest Colorado Health’s Dental Clinic in Craig at 485 Yampa Avenue. For more information, call 970-879-1632 in Steamboat Springs or 970-824-8233 in Craig.

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