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Establishing a dental care program.

Teeth are meant to last a lifetime, and with proper care, they will, says Dr. Stephen Towns, prominent Chicago periodontist and president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Dental Association (NDA). But there's the rub, he says. Far too many African-Americans fail to recognize the importance of teeth and, consequently, neglect them until it is too late. As a result, their visits to the dentist are either nonexistent or sporadic at best, motivated usually by a toothache that's gotten out of hand.

This abysmal neglect of teeth and oral care, he says, has produced alarming results. "African-Americans suffer greater early tooth loss, more tooth decay and more periodontal disease than Americans in general," says Dr. Towns. "I know if me can just get parents and kids in the habit of three to four visits to the dentist every year, we can rewrite those statistics forever. We can save money--and pain!"

Before the widespread tendency to neglect teeth can be reversed, Dr. Towns says, people must learn to realize the value of teeth. "People think nothing of spending $20,000 on a car," he says, "but if asked to spend some money to save their teeth, they keep insisting that they can't afford it." He feels that if people would realize how important teeth really are, they would understand that they can't afford not to spend money to save or protect their teeth. In his opinion, healthy teeth and oral health are the key to human well-being. To make his point, he refers to the animal kingdom. "The first animals to die are usually the ones who have lost their teeth," he says. While conceding that his observation is "strictly speculation" and does not necessarily hold true for people, he does see a strong correlation between overall fitness and dental health, especially in older people.

Lecturing on the importance of regular dental care with religious fervor, Dr. Towns says, "Think about it. Teeth get the food first. They are the start of the whole digestive process. They are the early warning system for our whole physical well-being. If we [dentists] see you regularly, we can spot early signs of problems and correct them. We can even prevent them. People should love to see us. We're the good guys!"

The NDA, which represents 6,000 African-American dentists, urges each and every African-American, regardless of age or gender, to start a program of regular routine dental care. To be effective, according to dental experts, such a program should involve the following:

* Regular brushing of teeth with a fluoride toothpaste or gel at least twice a day, and, whenever possible, after each meal. The purpose is to remove remnants of food and prevent the buildup of plaque, a colorless, sticky film that forms on the surface of the teeth, and whose bacteria produce acids that attack the protective enamel of the teeth, resulting in cavities. To prevent buildup of plaque in areas that brushing can't reach, regular flossing between the teeth and beneath the gumline is an important part of daily teeth maintenance.

* Rinsing with a fluoride mouth wash, in addition to brushing and flossing, is recommended as an effective deterrent to tooth decay. The same is true for an antimicrobial mouth rinse that helps control plaque and thus helps reduce gingivitis, a serious gum disease.

* Regular daily brushing and scraping of the tongue.

* Semiannual dental examinations for early signs of tooth decay and gum disease, and, if necessary, treatment by a qualified. dentist. Such examinations may include the taking of X-rays to determine whether there is tooth decay that cannot be detected through visual examination.

* Semiannual cleaning of teeth, which involves the removal of hardened plaque (tartar) and stains by a qualified oral hygienist. Failure to remove tartar that has formed near the gumline can cause the gums to become irritated and inflamed.

Periodic examinations are essential, dentists say, not only to detect cavities, but also to assure the health of the entire mouth. A mouth that has been allowed to go unchecked over an extended period can be the source of a host of health problems caused by infections that originate in the mouth and eventually enter the bloodstream.

Dr. Towns says the 83-year-old NDA is making headway in its effort to improve the dental care of African-Americans, but he concedes that it still has a long way to go. Already begun is a new nationwide Networking Action Plan designed to bring about personal contact with all 6,000 African-American dentists through the NDA's six regions and 48 component chapters.

Another NDA initiative, Dr. Towns points out, concerns the development and training of the next generation of dental caregivers. Working with Howard University Dental School and Meharry Medical College, long the only training grounds for Black dentists, the NDA recruits students and faculty and provides forums--the Speakers Bureaus, Convention Scientific Programs and the NDA Journal--for faculty to publish its findings. The NDA network provides students with in-office internships and assists recent graduates in all aspects of establishing a practice.

On another front, the NDA Foundation headed by Dr. Roosevelt Brown is dedicated to improving the oral health of African-Americans and increasing educational and research opportunities for its members. The NDAF has joined forces with Colgate-Palmolive to provide scholarship aid to promising students and institute a major research initiative to develop the research capabilities of the historically African-American schools, Howard University Dental School, Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry and Morehouse College of Medicine. Since 1990, says Dr. Brown, 686 students have received scholarship awards totaling more than $800,000 through NDAF programs. "In these times when the cost of a higher education has skyrocketed, the NDA Foundation has helped many African-American students pursue a dental career," says Dr. Brown. "By inreasing the pool of African-American dentists and other dental professionals, we are making a major contribution to improving access for African-American families to dental care."

How do people go about setting up a dental care program that is specifically suited for their needs? The first step, Dr. Patricia H. Duzon, a New York City dentist, advises, is to determine what kind of a dentist the patient is looking for. "If I were looking for a dentist," she says, "I would be looking for someone who's close to where I live, someone I can feel comfortable with, someone who's competent and capable of doing what's to be done, and--very important--someone who is affordable."

Dr. Duzon explains that people should look for a dentist who recognizes their insurance Plan or is willing to work out a payment schedule with them. She says the most reliable way to find a good dentist is through referrals from friends or relatives. Her colleague, St. Elmo Crawford Jr., a Washington, D.C., dentist, agrees. There are a variety of recommended methods to find a competent dentist, he says. One is to ask relatives, friends and acquaintances whether they happen to know a dentist who, in their opinion, does outstanding work and with whom they have had pleasant experiences.

Before deciding which dentist to choose, Dr. Crawford suggests the patient call the dentist he or she is considering and ask some probing questions, such as: Does the dentist use gloves and masks while doing procedures? Are the dentist's office hours compatible with the patient's schedule? What method is used to sterilize instruments? How much does a routine check-up cost? Are specialty services available within the office, such as endodontics, orthodontics or periodontics? Does the dentist perform oral surgery?

Only after having received satisfactory answers to these questions should the patient commit to an office visit, says Dr. Crawford.

People who have postponed seeing a dentist because of childhood memories of painful dental visits are assured by Dr. Crawford that pain in the dentist's chair is no longer a problem. "No, not these days," he, says. "There have been so many innovations in dental treatment, instrumentations and painkilling medications that pain is one of the lesser concerns these days. We have had tremendous new developments in anesthesia and analgesia that are used in dentistry which are more than adequate to handle most dental discomfort." He explains that new developments include finer needles, which, in conjunction with advanced analgesia, have helped make dental treatment "very comfortable."

In the event patients don't like the dentist they have chosen, Dr. Duzon says there's no reason the patients should go back to that dentist. "People must understand," she says, "that some patients are not compatible with some dentists." The important thing, she says, is that they continue their search until they succeed, and not give up the idea of establishing a regular dental care program.

For more information about the NDA or to contact your local NDA dentist, please call the NDA executive office at (202) 244-7555.
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Title Annotation:for African-Americans
Date:Jun 1, 1996
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