Doctors are doctors, and dentists are dentists, and never the twain shall meet. Whether you have health insurance is one thing, whether you have dental insurance is another. Your doctor doesn’t ask you if you’re flossing, and your dentist doesn’t ask you if you’re exercising. In America, we treat the mouth separately from the rest of the body, a bizarre situation that Mary Otto explores in her new book, Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America.
Specializing in one part of the body isn’t what’s weird—it would be one thing if dentists were like dermatologists or cardiologists. The weird thing is that oral care is divorced from medicine’s education system, physician networks, medical records, and payment systems, so that a dentist is not just a special kind of doctor, but another profession entirely.
But the body didn’t sign on for this arrangement, and teeth don’t know that they’re supposed to keep their problems confined to the mouth. This separation leads to real consequences: Dental insurance is often even harder to get than health insurance (which is not known for being a cakewalk), and dental problems left untreated worsen, and sometimes kill. Anchoring Otto’s book is the story of Deamonte Driver, a 12-year-old boy from Maryland who died from an untreated tooth infection that spread to his brain. His family did not have dental benefits, and he ended up being rushed to the hospital for emergency brain surgery, which wasn’t enough to save him.