Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Poor dental health in Kentucky a top-10 story?

This NYTimes story about the consequences of poverty for the dental health of Kentucky residents mentions the rural angle a couple of times. In particular, the reporter notes the drastic shortage of dentists in rural areas, a situation exacerbated by low Medicaid reimbursement rates in the state. Kentucky has the highest percentage of any state whose over-65 population are without their teeth. The story notes, too, the role of factors such as malnutrition, unflouridated well water, wife abuse, preemptive pulling of teeth to avoid the need for unaffordable or unavailable dental care, and even those who crack their healthy teeth to feed an addiction to pain medication. As in another NYT story in 2005, this article notes the role that methamphetamine use plays in Kentucky's dismal dental health statistics.

Perhaps the thing I find most curious about the publication of this story is its attraction among New York Times readers. As I write at mid-day on Christmas day, a day after the story first appeared, it is the second most emailed story on the newspaper's website. It's right up there with "The Minimalist: 101 Simple Appetizers in 20 minutes or less" and "A Threat so Big, Academics Try Collaboration" (about cross-disciplinary efforts to solve the problem of global warming). OK, so maybe it is a slow news day, but I wonder what it is about reports like this that Times readers, a presumably affluent and well-educated set, want to share with friends and family by emailing it. Are we readers surprised that this degree of deprivation still exists in our own fair country? that rural poverty exists, along with the urban poverty that is at least slightly more visible to us. (I must add that the story does not surprise me because it is the story of many of my older relatives and acquaintances in rural Northwest Arkansas; I still regret -- especially on my semi-annual visits to the dentist -- the unflouridated well water of my childhood there). Just as likely, reading about the stark reality of others so much less fortunate than we are makes us especially grateful for our affluence, particularly at this season. Indeed, another of the most emailed stories today arguably makes a similar point. "Anarchists in the Aisles; Stores Provide a Stage" is about so-called "shopdroppers," who seek to draw our attention to "hyper-consumerism."

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