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Health Department in West Virginia Connects Low-Income Adults with Community Dentists

February 23, 2015

Low-income adults in a West Virginia community who typically turn to the emergency room when the pain of untreated dental disease becomes unbearable now are getting the care they need from a network of volunteer dentists.  

The Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department (MOVHD) launched Smiles for Life, an emergency room referral program based in Parkersburg, W.Va., a town of about 40,000 people, in 2011, according to Mary Beth Shea, the health department’s Oral Health Coordinator. The program connects needy adults who don’t receive regular dental care with 22 dentists who provide basic services such as extractions and some restorative care. Nineteen dental hygienists also provide limited preventive care.

About 300 patients receive care every year through the program, and only about two percent of patients referred to area dentists don’t show up for their appointments, she said. Part of the reason the no-show rate is so remarkably low is because health department staff and dental office staff independently confirm the appointments.

The other reason the no-show rate is low, according to Ms. Shea, is because patients are required to pay a $25 medical screening fee at the health department before they receive a referral to the dentist. The fee acts as an incentive to keep the appointment.

Ms. Shea said that area health workers knew there was a substantial need for dental care following a Parkersburg Mission of Mercy in 2009. Missions of Mercy are one- or two-day events where dentists and other volunteers come together in large-scale, temporary clinics to provide free services for underserved people. Often the people they serve have not visited the dentist in several years and have difficulty accessing regular care.

“After the event we met with about 20 dentists who participated in the event asked, ‘What should we do next?’ It was agreed that we needed to open a clinic here because we didn’t have dental resources available to these adults in need,” she said.

Twenty-two dentists volunteered to provide care to adults in their offices with the caveat that the health department provides the referrals. Patients must have been residents of West Virginia for at least six months, 18 or older, and not already receiving regular dental care. They also must be low income based on the Federal Poverty Level Guidelines and not have any form of dental insurance apart from Medicaid.

The local hospital’s emergency department also refers patients to the health department, which then refers them to local dentists. So far, there has been a 14 percent reduction in emergency room visits for dental pain.

“This program could be replicated in other areas, but you have to have a base of dentists from which to draw,” said Ms. Shea.