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Too many toothaches taking over ERs

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ATLANTA -

It is hard to ignore a bad toothache, but thousands of Georgians are putting off getting help until the pain become unbearable. They instead are turning to Emergency Rooms to provide relief.

It is not just a trend in Georgia, but across the nation driven by a few factors. About a third of all Americans do not have any dental insurance coverage and unlike ERs, dentists are no required by law to treat patients with dental emergencies if the patient cannot pay.

Health experts said that the ER is not the answer.

Veteran dentist Richard Weinman is a volunteer at the Ben Massell Dental Clinic in Midtown Atlanta. It offers free preventive and restorative dental care to about 4,000 low income patients a year. Weinman said he asks the same question almost daily: "Why did you wait?"
 
"So, they have teeth that have decayed into the nerve, abscesses, swollen faces," said Dr. Weinman. "I say, 'This would have been so much easier for you, so much less expensive, if you'd come in earlier.'"

But it is not just those without the means to pay for a dentist.

"Even though we're dealing here with patients that don't always have the means, even patients with means tend to do the same behavior. They tend to put things off until they're uncomfortable," said Dr. Weinman.

Emergency departments, like the one at Grady Memorial Hospital, have oral surgeons on staff for trauma cases, but not dentists. So, they can treat fever, or infection or pain, but not the root cause. And care at the ER can cost ten times what you'd pay to see a dentist. This is why Ben Massell's director Keith Kirschner said they're working to keep dental patients out of the ER.

"We're hoping that we can get a patient, stabilize their need by providing the cleanings, the on-going support, and whatever kinds of restorative needs there are be it filling, or partials or dentures.  Which we offer for free, but we do have an incredible demand for those services." said Kirschner.

There are dozens of low-cost, free or public health dental clinics across metro Atlanta, but many have a waiting list for new patients. Dr. Weinman said they're trying to create a referral system to help ER patients find a dentist to help them.

"So that Grady Hospital, Northside Hospital would have a list, and they would say, 'Here's a group of dentists who are willing to see you, here are the clinics in your area that are willing to see you,'" said Weinman. "Part of what we have to work out is that they can get in a reasonable period of time, and be seen."

Another low-cost clinic in Atlanta is the Good Samaritan. They are not accepting new dental patients until the end of April.

If you need to see a dentist, but don't have the means to pay for it, visit gadental.org to find a low-cost of free clinic. You can also learn more about the Ben Massell Dental Clinic at
benmasselldentalclinic.org.

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