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Maine Hospital's Dental Clinic Alleviates ER Burdens

March 7, 2014 

Patients at Waldo County General Hospital in Belfast, Maine, are reaping the benefits of a dental clinic recently opened onsite.

Like many hospitals across the country, Waldo County General Hospital found itself increasingly swamped with patients seeking treatment for dental pain in its emergency department. In addition to taxing the department's overall resources, these patients were not receiving the comprehensive dental care needed to address their problems.

"About 20 percent of our recent ER patient encounters with adults have involved dental pain," said Dale Kuhnert, a member of the hospital's board of directors.

Then in July 2013, a dental clinic within the hospital opened to provide care to low-income patients who have nowhere else to turn. The clinic treats only adults—MaineCare, the state's Medicaid program, covers dental care for children but provides almost no dental coverage to adults.

In its first five months of operation last year, more than 110 people visited the dental clinic, 105 of whom were referred to area dentists by the staff dental hygienist, according to Mr. Kuhnert.

Nearly all of the patients referred to dentists needed restorative care, and about one third needed full or partial dentures, he added.

"The response to the new clinic has been overwhelmingly positive, but it's still too soon to say if it has caused ER visits to decrease," Mr. Kuhnert said.

The hospital is currently conducting interviews for a staff dentist, but right now patients are seen by a staff dental hygienist, who provides dental health education, teeth cleanings, and preventive services like fluoride treatments and sealants. Patients needing comprehensive care are referred to five area dentists, who provide those services for minimal co-pays and significantly discounted fees, which are covered by the hospital.

To qualify for the Belfast program, patients must meet certain federal income guidelines, be a resident of Waldo County and have gone without seeing a dentist in the previous 12 months. Most patients pay a $10 to $20 fee, but no one is turned away because of inability to pay.