Minnesotan Dr. Amos Deinard was honored early this month with a national lifetime achievement award for public health dentistry. Impressive, certainly — especially since Deinard isn’t a dentist.
He’s a pediatrician, and the first to be honored by the American Public Health Association. The 80-year-old Deinard, who’s known as “The Fluoride Guy,” was singled out for his tireless efforts to help low-income children and teens. I talked with Deinard about his mission, where his charitable spirit comes from and why he ate so many canned peas as a kid.
Q: How do you describe your interest in dental health?
A: My enthusiasm has become an obsession with a capital O. Tooth decay is a silent epidemic in this country. It doesn’t kill a lot of people, but low-income kids are missing school due to an abscessed tooth, with pain so bad they can’t study. Then they go to the emergency room and are treated for the pain and sent home with advice to see their dentist. But everyone knows there is no dentist who will take them.
Q: As a doctor, how did you come to be so focused on teeth?
A: The mouth is part of the body. Doctors and dentists must work together. If kids start seeing a dentist at 3 or 4, it’s too late. In certain communities, up to 60 percent have cavities by then.
The pediatrician or family practitioner sees kids from birth. I look at fluoride varnishing as something we, as doctors and nurses, must be doing, like immunizations. It’s primary intervention.
Q: What is fluoride varnishing?
A: It’s protective coating that’s painted on the surfaces of a child’s teeth, much like painting fingernails, to prevent new cavities and help slow cavities that have already started. It dries on contact. Because it’s painted on, the chance of ingestion is minimal. It takes less than three minutes, costs about a buck per fluoride packet, and is reimbursable for medical providers.
Q: Yet you say some doctors don’t want to bother with this simple procedure. Why?
A: I don’t know. The pediatricians I talk with say, “We know this is a problem — we see it every time we open a kid’s mouth.” Maybe it’s because more and more is being asked of them — from vaccinations to bike helmets to car seats to mental health questionnaires. Those are very legitimate concerns, just not legitimate enough to turn needy kids away.
Q: But more clinics are doing fluoride varnishing, right?
A: That’s right. More than 20 HealthPartners clinics have offered fluoride varnishing for six or seven years. At Fairview Health Services, all 38 clinics offer it. Allina Hospitals and Clinics started offering it about a year ago. HealthEast is in the process of jumping in and I’m still working on the Mayo Clinic. In addition, the Lions Clubs statewide have voted unanimously to launch education around this issue. I’ve probably trained 500 physicians who are supposed to train others in their clinics. That translates into thousands and thousands of children who benefit.
Q: Were you surprised to be awarded for your efforts?
A: I was startled out of my mind that they would think of a non-dentist. All these big names in public health dentistry and I’m just a little schtoonk [Yiddish for “stinker”] with a medical degree. I guess somebody appreciates what I’m doing. It’s nice to know that some people can think outside the box.
Q: Where does your charitable spirit come from?
A: When I got my driver’s license at 16, my father, who was a lawyer, sent me down the road to this little grocery store to pick up some canned goods. The woman who owned the store gifted them to me and said that if it hadn’t been for my father and his pro-bono work, she would never have been able to open her grocery store. We ate a lot of canned peas back then.
Q: What’s a typical workday for you?
A: Sitting at the computer, as much as I hate it.
Q: You just turned 80. You’re still an associate professor and you sit on three committees. Any chance of slowing down?
A: Nope. I want to see the goal met of every Minnesota child getting oral health care from his or her primary provider, no matter what their financial situation. I want to make the buzz phrase of every public health care provider: Get fluoride varnish here.
Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum