Across America, nearly 14% of senior citizens have lost all of their teeth
West Monroe, Louisiana (InvestigateTV) – Every year, dentist Ronald Stratton puts about 50,000 miles on his car to help fight tooth decay in one of the neediest areas of the U.S.
Stratton is the only dentist in East Carroll Parish, Louisiana, where nearly half of its residents are poor.
By 7:30 a.m. each weekday, Stratton is driving his GMC Yukon gold to his dental clinic – an hour and half from his home.
“If I ever left, I think it would be very hard pressed to get another practicing dentist here,” Stratton said.
The lack of access to dental care plagues many parts of rural America.
Nationally, 229 counties in the U.S. didn’t have a single dentist in 2019, federal data shows.
The federal government has designated 476 counties as dental shortage areas, 107 of them are in the Appalachian and Delta regions, including East Carroll Parish.
That lack of access can lead to tooth loss and potentially other health problems such as heart disease.
“It’s truly a mirror of overall health,” said Daniel W. McNeil, clinical professor of Dental Practice and Rural Health at West Virginia University.
Across America, nearly 14% of senior citizens have lost all of their teeth. In the Appalachian and Delta regions, nearly every county exceeds the national average.
In East Carroll Parish, where Dr. Stratton practices, nearly 40% of senior citizens have lost all of their teeth, the fourth highest percentage in the nation.
For the past three decades, Stratton said he has extracted more than 40,000 teeth and has performed more root canals than he can recall. He sees about 8,000 patients a year.
When Stratton first started seeing patients in 1990, he never planned on staying in the parish because there were two other dentists in the area.
But then they left, leaving Stratton as the only provider. He said he had to stay for the sake of the residents.
In East Carroll Parish, the need for oral care is great.
It leads the nation with the lowest percentage of adults who have visited a dentist in the previous year – 33.9%.
Two of the four public drinking water sources in the parish do not have fluoridization, which helps prevent tooth decay.
And, because such a high percentage of the population lives in poverty, residents have to pay for a lot of oral health care out of pocket.
Medicaid, the insurance for the poor and people with disabilities, doesn’t cover some procedures or fully cover others.
In Louisiana, for example, it doesn’t cover the cost of root canals after the age of 21. It doesn’t pay for braces. And Medicaid reimbursements to dentists has been stagnant for decades, Stratton said.
Many of his Medicaid and uninsured patients cannot afford to go to an oral surgeon for tooth extractions, leaving the job to Stratton.
“In a lot of cases, these teeth need to go,” Stratton said. “I’m just happy I can take care of that problem for them.”
Filling the oral care need in the region
Stratton solved Margaret Sheppard’s problem.
After losing her teeth years ago, Sheppard received dentures for her top teeth through Medicaid.
But they never properly fit. With those teeth, she was in constant pain and couldn’t properly chew. Her dentist at the time couldn’t help.
She started searching for a new dentist and found Stratton 35 minutes from her home.
Within weeks, Sheppard, 72, had new dentures and a big smile.Advertisement
“I had kind of given up,” Sheppard said. Her former dentist, “just couldn’t get it right.”
Now, she’s back to eating her favorite foods: hamburgers, neck bones and pig feet.
Sheppard knows that her tooth loss may have been prevented if she received regular oral care. Like millions of Americans, she avoided annual checkups.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 40% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 64 forego an annual trip to the dentist.
In the Delta region, where Sheppard lives, more than half of adults haven’t been to a dentist in at least a year.
Sheppard said she never could find the time for dental visits. She had six children to raise and a job at a nursing home, where she worked 16-hour shifts.
That’s all changed now. She’s a regular at Dr. Stratton’s office.
“We ain’t letting him go,” she said. “He’s going to stay here.”
*Original article online at https://www.wctv.tv/2021/10/18/state-decay-rural-areas-america-are-tooth-loss/