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Jackson County middling in youth dental health

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Shelly Inman knows the toll that untreated dental problems can take on a child’s education.

“Students have to be feeling good and healthy to be able to learn,” the principal of Jefferson Elementary School said. Pain and discomfort from a decaying tooth can be a powerful distraction, and often can keep a child from showing up to school at all.

“The pain of having a toothache and being up at night and trying to go to school and learn to read, and learn your times tables while you have a throbbing nerve is incomprehensible,” said Tyler Scott, dental prevention and outreach director for La Clinica. “Anyone who’s had tooth pain can identify with that.”

Scott oversees the nonprofit’s various outreach efforts and clinics to reduce dental disease among Jackson County children. It’s a priority that is gaining increasing attention from the state in 2020.

In Jackson County, health officials such as Scott have their eyes on new research about the state of dental health, as well as the impacts of proposed legislation that could further progress made locally in recent years.

A new study released by Oregon Health and Sciences University highlighted dental health among children on Medicaid. The research examined both access to services and evidence of outcomes, ranging from preventive services obtained to rates of emergency room visits for preventable dental diseases. All the data examined was from 2018.

Jackson County wound up close to the middle among Oregon’s 36 counties in each metric, according to the data. Those standings weren’t reached by accident, Scott said.

“Almost eight years of the Affordable Care Act and increased work in our schools has made a dent in our county,” he said. “We’ve moved the needle a little bit.”

One part of the study looked at children on Medicaid who accessed dental services in 2018, which could include preventive services such as a fluoride treatment, or non-preventive care such as a filling. Jackson County had the 16th-highest rate — placing it in the top 50% of Oregon counties — with 60.6% of children accessing dental services that year. Josephine County was even higher, in ninth place, with a 62.4% rate.

The study drilled deeper by looking at preventive services, which help ward off dental emergencies and disease.

The rate of children accessing those preventive services was generally lower statewide. Jackson County, however, ranked better among Oregon counties in this metric: its rate of 54.6% placed it 12 out of 36 counties.

Work like what La Clinica does both inside and out of local schools is part of expanding that type of access.

The nonprofit sets up site-based clinics at 27 schools in three school districts: Medford, Central Point and Phoenix-Talent.

The clinics offer chances for all students, not only La Clinica patients, to receive sealants, if they qualify for them, a fluoride varnish to help prevent cavities, as well as training on how to properly brush teeth and floss.

If students need more services, they’re referred to a dentist.

That type of work aims to curb expensive emergency room or urgent care visits for preventable dental disease. The OHSU study also examined rates of those visits as another indicator of health.

Jackson County was 18th among Oregon counties for its rate of emergency room visits for avoidable dental problems per 1,000 children on Medicaid. Scott said that he’s seen a decrease in those visits over the years as local outreach has expanded.

But he said that access alone isn’t enough to gauge health.

“Teaching pregnant moms, teaching kids, fluoridating the water, those are where the battle’s won and lost — not in here,” he said, gesturing at the dental chair beside him in La Clinica’s East Medford Dental Clinic. It’s one of the state’s largest such clinics.

That’s why he’s enthusiastic about the impacts of a proposed piece of legislation aiming to increase oral health education in schools.

School districts would be required to offer age-appropriate instruction in oral health as part of comprehensive health curriculum, if HB 4127 passes this year. Oregon Community Foundation, which commissioned the OHSU study, partnered with several Oregon legislators, including Rep. Cedric Hayden, R-Roseburg, who is a dentist, to pass the “Healthy Teeth, Bright Futures” campaign.

“That’s an encouraging sign that somebody gets it — that we’re not just talking about more dentists with more drills.” Scott said.

Another bill would direct the Oregon Dental Board to license a type of mid-level practitioner called a dental therapist, who can provide preventive services. That bill aims to expand availability of lower-cost dental health services, in rural areas especially.

In addition to preventing school absences and childhood cavities, Scott said, increasing local children’s dental health will have a long-term effect. Poor oral health during youth can lead to more critical problems and bigger bills to fix them as young adults, he said.

“It’s the untreated early cavities that grow into the big cavities that manifest at age 24,” he said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Corrina Piercy, dental hygiene manager for La Clinica, works with a student at Jackson Elementary School during a visit by the organization’s Happy Smiles in-school dental team. The team visits 27 area schools, providing dental health education, screening, fluoride treatments, tooth sealants and referrals to in-clinic dental care. (Photo courtesy of Jim Craven Photography)
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