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Dr. Mark Hughes Op Ed Column in Scottsdale Republic

by User Not Found | Dec 05, 2012

Scottsdale Republic Dr Mark Hughes

For thousands of Arizonans every year, what could be treated with a simple visit to the dentist becomes a crisis.  Emergency room doctors across Arizona tell us that every day patients come into hospitals with serious dental issues, complaining of pain and infection. Unfortunately, the most help they get in emergency rooms are pain medication and antibiotics before they are sent on their way.  

According to recent data, the costs of these visits have gone from $6.8 million in 2009 to more than $11.5 million in 2011.  Some patients develop acute infections and need to be admitted for days, costing our hospitals nearly $20 million a year, an amount that has increased by nearly 40% since 2009.  Most of the time, these costs are covered by the hospitals for patients without health insurance, or are paid out of our state’s AHCCCS program.

Two things have contributed to this terrible situation:  the Great Recession's impact on employment in Arizona, with many employees losing insurance coverage; and the elimination of the AHCCCS Adult emergency dental benefit in 2010. This benefit focused on extractions and root canals on front teeth, addressing issues that require immediate attention, before becoming crises. The loss of this benefit has been devastating to people with those problems and to the viability of our safety net hospital health care system.

The vast need for oral health will come into focus December 7-8 at the Veteran's Memorial Coliseum, as the Arizona Dental Mission of Mercy sets up a 100-chair dental clinic staffed by over 1,500 volunteers from the dental and lay community to treat over 2,000 patients.  In only two days, the event will provide more than $1 million in free dental care on a first come, first served basis.  More than 70 Dental Mission of Mercy events have taken place across the country since 2000, delivering free care to thousands.  The event will be the first ever in Arizona, focused on relieving pain and infection, and will provide basic dental care, including fillings, extractions and cleanings.

Arizona residents suffer from higher rates of dental disease, and benefit less from preventive methods than other states.  A recent survey revealed that 21% of Arizona adults and 31% of Arizona children have never had a dental check up.  This lack of attention has substantial, long-term costs.  For many, oral conditions interfere with eating, sleeping, learning, working and playing, and also impede an individual's self-confidence to improve their economic station in life.  Good oral health is inseparable from overall health and well-being.

Our health care system should be focused on the prevention of disease, and we have to be smart about spending our health care dollars -- especially when so many of these services are funded by taxpayer dollars, or are absorbed by hospital safety net health care system.  Arizona dentistry is proud of its focus on prevention.  Unfortunately, we are placed in a position where even large charitable events like the Arizona Dental Mission of Mercy can only scratch the surface to treat oral disease.  We can, and must do better. 

— Dr. Mark Hughes
    Community Chairman for the CADS Foundation's Arizona Dental Mission of Mercy