As the dentist in charge of the clinic at Detroit’s Crockett Career and Vocational Technical Center, Dr. Bridget Merritt-Brooks sees a lot of things that cause her as much pain as her mostly African-American patients feel.
“It is most disturbing to me when I see 4-, 5-, 6- or 7-year-old patients whose parents have never brushed their teeth and who have high-sugar diets,” she said. “There is little water or fresh fruits or vegetables in their diet. There is plaque sitting on the teeth because it is not being removed on a daily basis.”
A report from the U.S. Surgeon General’s office on oral health care in America last year confirmed that many racial and ethnic minorities still have limited access to dental care. While there are no reliable statistics for Metro Detroit, the anecdotal evidence is strong.
Because many African Americans have no access to dental care, they are more likely to be afflicted with advanced tooth and gum diseases, said Dr. Amid Ismail, a dentistry professor at the University of Michigan. He leads a coalition to provide free dental care to the underprivileged.
In coming years, access to dental care for African Americans may well be one of the main battlegrounds for equality. Rotting gums, missing teeth and numerous cavities have economic as well as physical implicatiions.
“Dental care is important for employability and it also serves a social function,” Ismail said. “If you work in the service industry, dental care is important. Dental care is a priority, not a luxury.”
It gets worse. Poor oral health could undercut your overall health. “You can’t be well in your body if you’re not well in your teeth and gums,” said Jane Halaris, a dental hygienist for nearly 30 years who practices in Clinton Township. “If we have access to people at an early age, we can prevent other systemic diseases.”
The other big barrier, of course, is affordability.
“If there isn’t dental insurance available, it is seen as optional care,” said Halaris, the Macomb County hygienist. “What’s lacking here is follow-up care. We need to work hard to find other ways of expanding and opening up care.”
The landscape of oral care is dotted with signs of progress. Late last month, the Detroit Health Department opened an oral health clinic aimed at the uninsured and the indigent, one of three such centers. And Merritt-Brooks says that in the few years since she’s been working with Detroit children, she’s noticed an increased awareness of oral health.
Still, we’ve got a long way to go.