Community Read Book Discussion Spotlights the Inequalities in Dental Care

Medical Journalist Mary Otto Shares the Story of a Young Boy Who Died from a Decaying Tooth

February 27, 2023
Members of the faculty of NYMC and TCDM stand together with author Mary Otto.
The NYMC and TCDM communities joined Mary Otto for a lively book discussion.

The Phillip Capozzi, M.D., Library and Touro College of Dental Medicine co-sponsored a book discussion on February 22 on Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America, by Mary Otto, second from right, a medical journalist and topic leader on oral health for the Association of Health Care Journalists. Otto was joined by Burton L. Edelstein, D.D.S., M.P.H., professor emeritus of dental medicine and health policy and management and special lecturer at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, who was featured in the book.

Ronnie Myers, D.D.S., M.S., right, dean of Touro College of Dental Medicine, facilitated the discussion, as members of the audience had the opportunity to ask questions of Otto on bridging the gap between dental and health care and increasing access to under-resourced communities, following her recount of the story of 12-year-old Deamonte Driver, who died from the lack of resources in dental care.  

In 2007, Driver returned home from school with a headache and felt unwell. When he was brought to a children’s hospital in Prince Gorges County, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C., he was diagnosed with a sinus infection and an abscessed molar.

Driver and his siblings never received routine dental care. Their father died years earlier from cancer and their mom did not have insurance while she worked at a bakery, in construction and as a health care provider. Her children’s Medicaid coverage lapsed temporarily when Driver was hospitalized. Even on Medicaid, she had a long and frustrating search for dental care for Driver’s younger brother, who had six decaying teeth.

“It is roughly estimated that about a third of us experience significant barriers getting access to the most basic routine oral health care services to help keep us healthy,” said Otto. “More than 76 million Americans lack dental coverage roughly three times the number who lack medical insurance.”

Driver was eventually diagnosed with meningitis and the septic tooth had spread to his brain and left him fighting for his life.

While writing the story on Driver as a Washington Post metro reporter, Otto spoke to children’s advocates, public health experts and professionals in pediatric dentistry. She analyzed data including hundreds of thousands of children in Maryland covered by Medicaid, like Driver, who did not receive the routine dental care they were entitled to by law or preventative care they needed.

Her story ran in the newspaper one week after Driver had died. Dr. Edelstein was on his way to Capitol Hill when he read Otto’s story about Driver’s death. He was on his way, along with other oral health advocates, to demand dental benefits under the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) as it was up for the reauthorization following the 10-year anniversary. Driver became the face for the movement, including dental care to federal health care plan.

Otto published her book in 2017, ten years after Driver’s death. She highlighted the oral health crisis that plagues the nation and the struggles marginalized and under-resourced communities had to endure and continue to endure for dental care they’re entitled to by the government.

“You know our heads are attached to our bodies, but our system just doesn't reflect that,” said Otto.

“The Capozzi Library and TCDM have partnered on several book club programs in the last several years so it was only natural when I was asked for suggestions that Mary Otto’s Teeth was on my list,” said Marie T. Ascher, M.S., M.P.H., left, Lillian Hetrick Huber endowed director of the Phillip Capozzi, M.D. Library. “It turned out to be an amazing and enlightening read and led to some wonderful discussions with such a generous author and Dr. Edelstein. I look forward to the next book discussion and welcome suggestions from the community.”