Meeting Mary Otto, Journalist and Author of “Teeth”

The NCOHC team recently had the rare opportunity to venture out of our homes and wipe the dust off our desks. With masks in hand, we made our way to our Foundation for Health Leadership & Innovation office to meet Mary Otto, journalist and author of the critically acclaimed book “Teeth” while she was here in North Carolina.

Otto is a health care reporter and a leading voice in oral health journalism. If you haven’t read “Teeth,” the book is an eye-opening account of the pervasive inequities that exist in oral health care and their devastating impacts.

Otto didn’t begin her career as a health care journalist. In fact, when she first began to dive into the oral health space, she was a general assignment reporter for the Washington Post.

“I was covering social issues at the Washington Post, writing a lot about poverty issues—housing, programs for low-income families,” said Otto. “I ended up writing about this family that was struggling—the Driver family—and I met Deamonte Driver.”

Driver’s struggle, rooted in a lack of access to oral health care, made waves across the nation and around the world. The 12-year-old would eventually die after bacteria from an untreated tooth infection spread to his brain.

Otto’s book tells Driver’s story, outlines the structural inequities that plague millions of Americans, and traces the roots of our current system through the history of dentistry.

The light that Otto and other journalists helped shine on inequities in oral health eventually led to change in Maryland, where Deamonte lived.

“It really took on a life of its own and they were really able to make some meaningful reforms.” said Otto. “Elijah Cummings became a powerful voice for adding a guaranteed dental benefit to the Children’s Health Insurance Program and for reforming Medicaid’s pediatric dental program. He himself grew up poor in Baltimore, and he would talk about how dental pain was expected – it was a part of life for him.”

In the years following Driver’s death, Maryland made significant reforms to its Medicaid program, becoming one of the better states in the nation for Medicaid beneficiaries. There are still plenty of opportunities for improvement, however, especially with regards to adult dental coverage and equitable access to care.

Today, Otto is working on a new project, exploring the history of a union-driven, patient-centered medical system in coal country in the 1950s and ‘60s. Though her newest project is focused on health care as a whole, Otto remains plugged into the oral health space. During our meeting, we spoke about everything from teledentistry to an innovative clinic in Seattle dedicated to helping patients navigate anxiety and fear related to oral health care.

Expect to hear more from Otto in the near future! We’re excited to learn more about her current investigative work, and we have high hopes to keep her plugged into the oral health space here in North Carolina.

If you haven’t read Mary’s book, “Teeth,” you can find it here.

NCOHC, a program of the Foundation for Health Leadership & Innovation, works to advance systems-level changes, improving the overall health and well-being of all North Carolinians by increasing access and equity in care. To stay up-to-date and get involved, join us today as a North Carolinian for Change.