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Idaho Pilot Program Puts Dentists in Nursing Homes

August 17, 2015 

A long-term care pilot project initiated by the Idaho State Dental Association, in conjunction with the Idaho Dental Hygienists’ Association and the Idaho Health Care Association, is helping more elderly people living in nursing homes in that state receive regular dental treatment.

The state dental association started the program, called Smiles for Seniors, with grant support from insurer Delta Dental of Idaho about a year ago. The program started in two locations, one in Buhl, a rural town of about 4,200 people, and one in Boise, the state capital, according to Linda Swanstrom, the state dental association’s executive director.

“Buhl is a very small, rural community where historically we have had trouble making sure that elderly people receive proper oral health care,” she said.  “Unfortunately we’re seeing the same dynamic in our senior care facilities in Boise. When we started this program, dentists went into the facilities to screen the patients and told us that many of the residents had substantial oral health problems because they hadn’t received the necessary preventive care, and many needed help taking care of their teeth.”

Delta Dental of Idaho grant funds enabled project organizers to purchase the mobile dental equipment needed to set up treatment rooms in two assisted living facilities – one in Buhl and one in Boise – along with electric toothbrushes to improve the patients’ daily oral health care.  The equipment makes it possible for the volunteer dental team to evaluate and clean patients’ teeth, and educate nursing home staff about the importance of helping the residents maintain good oral hygiene.

“The electric toothbrushes have been a wonderful tool for the patients as many struggle to use a manual toothbrush effectively,” said Ms. Swanstrom.  “Ongoing training for the staff about the importance of daily care and the connection of oral health to overall health has been critical to maintaining good oral health for the residents. Now, the staff makes sure that the residents brush their teeth and floss regularly.”

Initially, a few of the elderly patients had such poor oral health that they had been told they’d need their remaining natural teeth pulled in order to accommodate dentures.

“Our participating dentists were able to help those patients get the care they need and reverse the damage that had been caused, helping them to save their teeth,” said Ms. Swanstrom.

The program continues to be effective at both locations – thanks largely to generous donations of time from the volunteers and grants for supplies provided by the Idaho Dental Foundation, the charitable arm of the state dental association, and the Southwest Idaho District Dental Society. 

But sustainability continues to be an issue.

“The greatest challenge right now is finding a sustainable model,” said Ms. Swanstrom. “This is truly a pilot and we’re figuring out what it takes to sustain and grow the program.  A key factor will be identifying stable funding and staffing. We’re hopeful that our work will drive necessary changes.”