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Michigan Clinic Serves as Dental Home for Patients Seeking Treatment at Emergency Room

September 30, 2014

A non-profit dental clinic in Michigan that treats low-income adults referred there by the local hospital’s emergency room staff also is providing follow-up treatment to patients.

VINA Community Dental Center, located in Brighton, a suburb of Detroit, opened in 2008 to meet the needs of low-income people in Livingston County who had little to no access to dental care, according to Barbara Colley, director of the clinic. During the past year, VINA dentists have treated about 170 people referred to the clinic from the town’s local hospital, St. Joseph Mercy Brighton. 

About half of the emergency room referral patients return for follow-up visits, which reduces their chances of having untreated dental disease in the future.

“We tell our patients that as long as they qualify, they can consider us their dental home,” said Ms. Colley. “But for some of the patients, months will go by after their initial treatment here and they’ll go back to the emergency room and receive another referral to our clinic.”

Hospital emergency rooms throughout the country are often visited by people who do not regularly seek dental treatment, instead waiting until the pain becomes unbearable. Most hospitals are not equipped or staffed to provide comprehensive dental care. 

In Brighton, many people who have dental issues show up at the emergency room after years of not regularly visiting a dentist, meaning that they have dental disease and often need teeth extracted, according to Ms. Colley. Emergency room doctors at St. Joseph Mercy Brighton prescribe antibiotics and pain medication, when needed, to patients who have dental abscesses, and then provide referral slips to the clinic. 

In an effort to ensure patients show up for their appointments, the hospital also faxes the referral slips to the clinic, so that clinic staff can follow up with the patients, according to Ms. Colley. 

Having each of those patients treated at the clinic poses a challenge due to a variety of logistical issues.

In order to be treated at VINA, patients must be at least 19 years old, reside in Livingston County, live in a household without dental insurance, and have an income at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. 

The clinic employs two part-time dentists, who are assisted by other volunteer dentists. It is funded primarily through donations and grants. Dentists at VINA treat about 1,900 patients each year for extractions, preventive services and fillings.

“This system is also a way to alleviate some of the financial burdens placed on the hospital for expensive emergency room visits involving dental problems that are much better treated by dentists,” said Ms. Colley. 

VINA is a non-profit organization funded through donations, grants and fundraising efforts. Options for donations or volunteering may be found online or contact by email.