Alice Hart of Wichita has no dental insurance.
When one of her teeth started crumbling, her dentist wanted to do a root canal and then put a crown on the tooth, for $2,000. Hart would have to pay all of it, which she couldn’t do.
A friend told her about the Advanced Education in General Dentistry program at Wichita State University. It offers advanced training for dental-school graduates and reduced-cost services to patients.
Hart decided to have her tooth pulled there. It cost her about $200 for cleaning, X-rays and the extraction.
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“I didn’t realize how sick this tooth was making me,” Hart said. “Once I had it pulled I felt better.”
Hart’s experience is just one example of how dental problems affect more than one’s smile. And it’s a message the Kansas Health Foundation wants to get out in a new public-health campaign to address what it calls a crisis in oral health in Kansas.
“It impacts the health” of the whole person, Christopher Power, vice president for communication for the health foundation, said.
In a campaign called “Truth About Teeth,” the foundation will use words such as “decay” and “gross” plastered across mouths on billboards and in other ads to get people’s attention and give them some fact about the state’s dental condition.
For example, “58% of Kansas third-graders have experienced tooth decay,” the billboard will read.
“Truth About Teeth” follows in the footsteps of two previous public-awareness campaigns by the Kansas Health Foundation — "Let’s Take It Outside" in 1997, to fight second-hand cigarette smoke, and “Change Something,” a promotion of good nutrition and physical activity among Kansans, in 2006.
In past campaigns, “people seemed to be good about coming up with solutions,” said Steve Coen, president and CEO of the health foundation. He has personal experience about the wide-ranging impact of tooth problems: Alice Hart is his mother-in-law.
Coen said the foundation is always on the look-out for emerging health-care trends and has heard concerns about dental care voiced often during listening tours by the foundation over the past few years. He said the issue is one of access and prevention. The high cost of dental care, too-few dentists and a lack of preventive measures such as widespread fluoridated water and sealants on children’s teeth are among the problems, Coen said.
A few state statistics quoted by the foundation:
• Ninety-three counties in Kansas do not have enough dentists to serve their residents, and 13 have no dentists at all.
• Kansas hospitals reported more than 17,500 visits to emergency rooms for dental-related problems in 2010.
• Kansas ranks 18th in the United States for total tooth loss among senior citizens.
• Only 25 percent of Kansas dentists accept patients insured through Medicaid.
Nationwide, studies show that more than a quarter of 2- to 5-year-olds have tooth decay, that most adults show signs of gum disease but less than two-thirds have seen a dentist in the past six months, and that one in 20 middle-aged adults is missing all his teeth, the foundation says.
The foundation will launch “Truth About Teeth” on Monday with billboard, radio and print ads; a website, www.truthaboutteeth.org, which shows how poor oral health affects a person over a lifetime; and a Facebook app (facebook.com/KansasHealthFoundation). The app will allow Facebook users to place a tag over their teeth in a photograph of themselves, and can either post the photo to their wall or use it as their profile picture. For every person who uses the app (up to 2,500), the foundation will donate $1 to Give Kids a Smile, a program of the American Dental Association that will benefit Kansans.
The foundation already helps with programs including Kansas Mission of Mercy, which provides dental care to the uninsured, and Dental Hubs and Spokes, which sends dental hygienists from “hub” safety-net clinics in each region of the state out to “spokes” such as schools and nursing homes. That program has become self-sustaining, Coen said.
The Kansas Health Foundation is a private philanthropy formed through the sale of Wesley Medical Center in 1985. It has more than $435 million in its asset base and gives more than $22 million each year to help improve the health of Kansans.