Poor Oral Health Remains Major Problem Among American Indian Tribes

By Leah Martinez, Delta Dental

The Navajo Nation is the largest tribal group, and indeed, the largest reservation by land mass in the United States at 25,000 square miles. The reservation occupies the historic “Four Corners” region where the states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah all meet. This vast land is challenged with many obstacles and disparities. One particularly disturbing finding creates a lifelong health divide for Navajo children. They have poorer oral health. A new study from the University of Colorado shows that it remains a major problem.  Preschool-age Navajo children show rates of untreated decay than are 3 to 4 times higher than their peers.

While the percentage of Navajo children with untreated tooth decay appears to have declined overall in the past decade, down from 82.9 percent in 1999, it’s still extremely high. The study is particularly concerning to Arizona, as our state has many urban and rural Native American communities. In fact, Arizona is home to 22 Federally recognized Indian tribes. Additionally, the city of Phoenix is home to more than 43,700 Tribal members, making it the U.S. city with the third highest number of Native Americans.

Published in the Journal of Public Health Dentistry, the study looked at a large and broad group of 981 children enrolled in Head Start. The study showed that 69.5 percent of Navajo children have untreated tooth decay which is extremely high when compared to the 20.48 percent to the national average among all other racial and ethnic groups.

There are multiple factors contributing to this severe rate of dental decay in young Navajo children including the physical and social environments, health behaviors and access to dental services.  Access to services is difficult as the Navajo Nation only has 22 dental clinics for its 225,639 residents, making its dentist-to-patient ratio the lowest in the country. The lack of public transportation also plays a key role in many rural and isolated areas.

The study suggests that a multi-prong approach to reducing dental disease for Navajo children could include effective preventive services paired with culturally appropriate oral health instruction and easier access to dental care.

Download the full study here: RC2BaselinePaper (1)

Study finds widespread oral health problems among Navajo

By Medical Press

A new study from Colorado School of Public Health shows that despite some modest improvements, poor oral health remains a major problem in the Navajo Nation and among American Indians overall.

“The among Native Americans is abysmal with more than three times the disease of the rest of the country,” said Terrence Batliner, DDS, MBA, associate director of the Center for Native Oral Health Research at the School of Public Health. “The number one problem is access to care.”

The study, published recently in the Journal of Public Health Dentistry, showed that 69.5 percent of Navajo had untreated tooth decay. While that’s better than the 82.9 percent in 1999, it’s still unacceptably high.

“The percentage of children with untreated decay appears to have declined in the past decade, although it remains today substantially higher (three to four times) than national averages,” the study said.

Batliner and his colleagues, including Patricia Braun, MD, MPH, who directed the study on the Navajo Nation, looked at 981 children in 52 Head Start classrooms on the reservation. Of those, 89.3 percent had oral disease in the past and 69.5 percent had untreated tooth decay.

That 69.5 percent of untreated decay compares with 20.48 percent among all other race and ethnic groups.

The Navajo Nation is the largest reservation in the country, stretching over 25,000 square miles. Much of it is remote with 22 dental clinics serving 225,639 residents. The dentist-to-patient ratio is 32.3 dentists per 100,000 residents, among the lowest in the country.

The researchers found that half of all Native American children need to be treated in the operating room due to the severity of their .

To increase access to care, Batliner advocates the creation of dental therapists for the reservation.

“They learn how to do fillings and extractions along with providing preventative services,” Batliner said. “This program has proved to be a raging success among tribes in Alaska. The quality of care is good.”

The American Dental Assn. opposes dental therapists and has filed suit to block their use on tribal lands.

“The American Dental Association is fighting the idea of dental therapists,” Batliner said. “But many of us perceive as a Native solution to a Native problem. Children and adults are suffering and this is a solution that can help.”