Clinics meet a growing need for dental services

Oral health programs are successful when they build strong relationships with their community

In a recent edition of New Hampshire Business Review and the EH Roundup there was an article entitled “Dental clinics serving uninsured struggle to fill seats” (Dec. 13-26 NHBR) that has caused real concern among those of us who are successfully providing oral health services in a community setting.

While Dr. Simpson’s dental clinics may be experiencing underutilization, there are several other oral health programs around the state that are very busy meeting the oral health needs for the uninsured adults and children in New Hampshire. One such program is the Greater Nashua Dental Connection.

Since 1999, the Greater Nashua Dental Connection (GNDC) has been dedicated to improving the oral health and overall health of thousands in need. The GNDC serves an increasingly diverse population that includes low-income and uninsured children and adults, veterans, refugees and elderly, prenatal, mentally ill, HIV/AIDS patients and disabled persons.

Those who are currently eligible for services include children and adults living in New Hampshire who are without insurance or are Medicaid-eligible or are in need of affordable, quality dental care.

Although patients are expected to pay a nominal fee for all services, the GNDC will never refuse a patient emergency treatment based on their inability to pay. Originally, most GNDC clients were categorized as below 200 percent of the national poverty level, but this is typically no longer the case. There is a growing demand for affordable oral health care, specifically within newly identified at-risk populations that include adults between the ages of 18 and 26, refugees, veterans and families – all who do not have insurance or qualify for Medicaid.

As the need for affordable oral health care has grown and changed, the GNDC has demonstrated its capacity and ability as an agency with statewide reach. Patients are referred to the GNDC daily from hospitals, Nashua referral agencies, the Nashua Area Health Center, Boston Public Health and Dartmouth HIV programs as well as the New Hampshire Bureau of Oral Health and other agencies.

In the 2011 fiscal year, the GNDC treated 1,152 patients from the original 11 designated greater Nashua communities and 408 patients from 38 additional communities. In addition, the GNDC scheduled close to 600 emergency visits. Through its School Program, 125 students were transported and treated, with many more screened; half of treated students were uninsured and required multiple visits. In 2012, the GNDC increased hours and saw a 10 percent increase in the number of patients served.    

The GNDC is continuously seeking creative ways of securing additional funding that include grants, corporate sponsorships and fundraising events. One, the GNDC Annual Comedy Night and Silent Auction, raises more than $45,000 a year. This type of successful fundraiser has allowed the GNDC to offset uncollected fees, purchase new equipment and make overall improvements to the clinic.

If a community-based dental program is having trouble filling their schedule they may want to take a look at their model, scope of services, fee schedule and their expectations. It is vital to the success of a community-based oral health program to have the support of their community partners who work with the at-risk populations the program is designed to serve. The partnerships should be based on the common goal of improving oral health as it contributes to overall health and improves the lives of the patients served.

While it is noble to want to provide a full scope of oral health services, the reality is that many of the patients who first access the dental programs do so because they are in pain. Providing services that alleviate that pain at fees they can manage is a very important first step while helping the patient understands how their oral health can be improved. It may be one tooth at a time but it is progress and each tooth saved adds value to the patient’s self-esteem and commitment to continue.

Successful community-based oral health programs are successful because they have built strong relationships with their community, they charge fees that their patients can afford and they treat their patients with dignity.

Dedra Twomey is executive director of the Greater Nashua Dental Connection.

Categories: Opinion