Great Health Divide | Drilling down on dental disparities

Published: Oct. 21, 2021 at 10:59 AM EDT
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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WSAZ) - It’s estimated only 61 percent of American’s visited a dentist last year, numbers likely only worsened by the pandemic.

Those who live in rural Appalachia also struggle with access to affordable dental care.

After polishing off a career in the Navy, Dr. Stephen Pachuta, an alum, came back to his old stomping grounds to steer the program. He’s a former graduate of West Virginia University’s School of Dentistry, now, he’s also the Dean.

“Oral health care is primary health care, you cannot separate the two,” he said. “Your mouth, your oral cavity, is kind of the window to your body.”

WVU School of Dentistry is the only program in the state, a research and clinical facility that allows students opportunities to work and serve the community while earning their education.

“We’re that sole point of access for so many families who otherwise wouldn’t have access to a dentist,” said Pachuta.

The class of 2022 is made up of 48 students from four countries and 11 states. Future dentists like Jason Solensky, want to make the dental experience more personable and numb any fear.

“Don’t ever be scared of the dentist,” he said. “They’re here to help you, here to work with you. Have that conversation.”

He spent years studying chemical engineering and then realized he needed something more. Solensky says he recognized the fulfillment in helping others.

“Whether that be taking an abscess tooth out having them switch their diet,” said Solensky. “We also check their blood pressure, that can change so many things, I know it changed my life.”

The switch in careers led Solensky to getting his own underlying medical condition diagnosed. He says the most incredible experiences is being able to give someone back the gift of a genuine, happy, smile or the chance to eat their favorite foods again.

“Taking away someones pain, is probably one of the best things,” he said. “You can just instantly see that moment of relief in their eyes, let alone in their body language.”

New this year is a change in Medicaid benefits for West Virginia residents, thanks to legislation passed in 2020. Many other states offered better coverage.

“That is significantly changing the practice at the University here, but it’s also increasing the opportunity for patients in the community to receive preventative dental care,” said Dr. Pachuta.

About 30 percent of West Virginia adults are Medicaid eligible and now they have an additional $1,000 in benefits that can be spent on corrective procedures like root canals, crowns, dentures and implants. Under previous programs, many patients had to wait until a tooth needed to be extracted before coverage would kick in.

“A thousand dollars doesn’t sound like a lot, but you can do an awfully lot of preventative dentistry, and restorative dentistry for a thousand dollars,” said Dr. Pachuta. “Once you get the restorative needs taken care of, it comes down to maintenance.”

According to the American Dental Association, there were about 862 dentists in West Virginia in 2020, which equated to about 2,100 patients per provider. Dr. Pachuta tells WSAZ, 83 percent of dentists practicing in the state, graduated from WVU’s program.

The goal and focus now, is to make sure that care and coverage is being provided to all residents in every part of the state.

“Maybe in a big city like Charleston, or Beckley or Huntington or Wheeling or Morgantown, we may have a large concentration of dentists but when you get out into the coalfields, southern coalfields, Appalachian part of West Virginia, not so much with the concentration of population, not as many dentists in that area.”

The school also includes rural rotations as part of the curriculum. Other patients travel long distances to visit the full-service clinic in Morgantown. Dr. Pachuta says it’s also important to begin by educating the public about other chronic health conditions like smoking and diabetes that can impact their oral health.

“We need to look at ways at either bringing them in to centers such as Morgantown, Beckley or Charleston or pushing our providers and students, our dentists, further out into the communities,” he said.

For Solensky, his crowning achievement will be restoring confidence in a patient and removing the hurt. Not only changing their smile, but their quality of life.

“They’re walking out with what you did, but more importantly, their life is changed forever and they’re happy and healthy,” he said.

An estimated 310,000 West Virginians are now eligible for the expanded dental coverage under Medicaid benefits.

Poor oral health can impact employability, mental health and can lead to other serious medical conditions.

To learn more about WVU School of Dentistry, click here.

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