Board of Dentistry’s relaxation of limits on hygienists is the latest sign of hope in Kentucky’s all-too-grim story of oral health

By Al Smith
Kentucky Health News

With nearly a fourth of Kentucky’s 1 million children living in poverty and suffering some of the worst oral health in America, the state Board of Dentistry voted Saturday to develop regulations to permit hygienists to treat children in a public health setting perhaps stemming a near epidemic of tooth decay in the very young.

Hygienists will still be responsible to dentists when working in public-health settings such as schools, where they can apply preventive treatments on their own if the new regulation wins legislative committee approval. It isn’t as far as we want to go in confronting our horrific problems, but it may remove stones in our path that have kept a tight control on the use of hygienists.

In the past, organized dentistry in Kentucky, fearing competition from hygienists, has opposed expanding their scope of practice, but as Kentucky remains stalled near the bottom of state rankings of oral health, younger dentists are accepting the need for change, says Dr. James Cecil, a retired dentistry professor at the University of Kentucky.

Saturday’s action by the Board of Dentistry partly may have been “from desperation, over recent bad publicity as the popular press portrays the profession as unresponsive to the needs of our poor citizens,” Cecil said in an interview.
“While dentistry still remains where medicine was 20 years ago,” when many doctors opposed licensing physician assistants and nurse practitioners, Cecil said dentists “will learn they can make more money when their services become more available through greater use of auxiliaries such as the hygienists.”

Cecil, former chief dental officer for the U.S. Navy and distinguished as a national leader in public health, earlier last week participated with Kentucky Youth Advocates in the organization of a new Kentucky Oral Health Coalition, whose startup is funded by a foundation grant to KYA.

This coalition of various organizations, including public health departments, nurses, physicians, insurers, and some dentists, will be independent of dental associations or the state’s two dental colleges, and it will campaign for better programs for general as well as oral health.

In the early months of a year when the Kentucky General Assembly, like the U.S. Congress, has reached little agreement on public issues, the state Department of Public Health, actively supported by Gov. Steve Beshear, seems to be gaining traction on oral-health needs.

Grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission are expected to go to two of 13 new local health coalitions in Eastern Kentucky. The grants will pay for one mobile dental van and equipment to reach out to an area with children whose teeth are so decayed they were one focus of an ABC “20/20” documentary viewed by 11 million people in 2009.

Through funding by the federal government, the oral health program will begin training general dentists in more pediatric care. And with additional funding from ARC, this project focuses on dentists in the ARC counties for participation.

Meanwhile, Dr. Cecil and KYA hope to organize more local dental coalitions in rural Western Kentucky. Coalitions may decide to include ‘senior days’ to help older citizens with appalling dental health needs.

There are now 25 such coalitions in the state. As more are established, the challenge is to expand the reach of the state’s 3,000 hygienists, to assist and encourage the state’s 2,400 active dentists to become more pro-active about solving problems that drag down oral health in Kentucky, and to educate parents to care for their children’s teeth, beginning in their first year of life.

Historically, in a culture with so much poverty, Kentuckians have stoically accepted being toothless in old age as part of the price. First, though, there are awful workforce problems. What starts with neglect in childhood evolves into a workforce of adults with severe tooth loss and poor self-image, plus illnesses associated with dental disease (obesity, diabetes, strokes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s) and last, a distressing cohort of toothless elderly poor, sadly, among the highest in the country.

It’s a grim story, but Cecil sees determination in the profession to address the problems. With a new added role for hygienists, he says, “The dam may be broken.”

Journalist Al Smith, Lexington, a former federal cochairman of the ARC, and co-founder of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at UK, is the retired host of KET’s “Comment on Kentucky.”

Kentucky Health News is a service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

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