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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Dr. Gerald Phipps: Recent grant to expand access to dental care in Spokane a much-needed step forward

The emergency room is no place to see a dentist. Yet, too many Americans in pain from preventable oral health problems seek treatment at local hospitals, despite the fact that most emergency rooms do not have an on-site dentist. Because the underlying dental problems are not addressed, patients may seek pain medication, often opioids. Each year, ER dental visits cost the U.S. health care system $1.9 billion.

As a community, we need to think creatively about how to solve this prevalent health issue. One entity cannot solve it alone. Rather, it requires bringing together diverse partners and providers to invest in expanding access to preventive oral health care. Increased access will help reduce the number of people seeking last-resort, expensive emergency treatment for dental pain and infections.

The $2 million grant that Delta Dental of Washington (including $400,000 from its Arcora Foundation) recently awarded to Providence Health Care in Spokane is a much-needed step forward in addressing this issue and will offer new access to dental care as early as this summer. The grant will establish new dental clinics and a new residency program.

With federally qualified health centers over capacity, vulnerable patient populations are looking for help elsewhere. The grant will support a dental clinic at the Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center & Children’s Hospital campus and another near Providence Holy Family Hospital, to be operated by CHAS Health. Another $2 million in matching state funds will maximize the impact of these clinics as they reach patients where treatment is needed most.

In Spokane County, expanded access to dental care is desperately needed. More than half of the county’s children have had cavities by the third grade, according to the Spokane Regional Health District. And less than a quarter of all Medicaid-insured adults in Spokane County accessed dental care in 2017. By treating patients at these new clinics before oral health problems become dental emergencies, we can keep health care system costs down and reduce the many negative consequences of untreated tooth decay.

While this grant focuses on expanding access to dental care for uninsured populations, even patients with dental insurance aren’t visiting the dentist enough. Delta Dental of Washington, the state’s largest dental benefits company, covering more than 2 million patients in Washington and another 1 million patients nationally, says many of their members are living with dental pain unnecessarily. Using dental benefits to visit a dentist is an essential step to take care of your health and avoid expensive ER visits and more costly treatments down the road.

Far too often, oral health is considered separate from overall health. It isn’t. Oral disease is linked to diabetes, heart disease, stroke and pregnancy complications. Poor oral health doesn’t just cost money – it costs lives. In 2007, a 12-year-old boy in Maryland died when bacteria from an abscessed tooth spread to his brain. This is one of many tragic connections between oral and overall health that can no longer be ignored.

As an orthodontist, I aim to help my patients achieve their best possible smile. Sadly, since starting my practice in 1987, I’ve seen an increase in the number of patients who have basic, unmet oral health needs. For example, I recently examined a middle-aged man who for years had neglected his oral health. I encouraged the patient to see a general dentist before things got worse. Unfortunately, he did not and ended up in the emergency room in the middle of the night with severe oral pain.

It takes a communitywide effort to address these challenges. With more dentist chairs soon available, patients will have shorter distances to travel and more options to find the care they need. I look forward to volunteering my time at these new clinics, and hope that my colleagues in the area will join me as we work to make essential oral health care in Spokane County a reality for all.

Dr. Gerald Phipps, DMD, MS, is a board-certified orthodontist who has practiced in the Spokane area for 31 years. He is a member of the Washington State Dental Association, a past president of the Spokane District Dental Society, and is chair of the Delta Dental of Washington board of directors and also serves on the Arcora Foundation board.