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Montana Dentist Relieves Burden of Patients Seeking Dental Care at Local Health Center

February 11, 2015

A dentist in a rural Montana town is making sure that people who turn to the local health center for emergency dental treatment receive the care they need in the correct setting – his office.

Dr. Barrie Matthews for the past four years has provided extractions for people referred to his office, Big Sky Smile Center, from oneHealth, a center that integrates community and public health in Miles City, a town of about 10,000 people in a geographically isolated part of Montana.

“If a person visits oneHealth for a dental problem and they don’t have the finances to pay for it, the clinic’s non-profit foundation, Grounds For Change, provides a voucher for as much as $150 and then we apply that toward their appointment and treatment,” said Dr. Matthews. “The generous supporters of Grounds For Change provide the vital funding for these patients and make the vouchers possible.”

Providers at oneHealth call Big Sky Smile Center and schedule an appointment for the patient. During the dental appointment, Dr. Matthews’ team takes an x-ray and Dr. Matthews performs a dental examination, which is sometimes followed by an extraction. After Dr. Matthews completes the treatment, Big Sky Smile Center submits the voucher back to oneHealth for reimbursement.
 
Emergency rooms throughout the country are inundated by patients seeking treatment for dental pain, and most hospitals are underequipped and not sufficiently staffed to provide comprehensive dental care. The number of dental visits to hospital emergency rooms doubled from 1.1 million in 2000 to 2.1 million in 2010, according to the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project.

Many patients receive only antibiotics or pain medication, but the underlying dental problem is not addressed.  In too many cases, the patient returns to the emergency room with the same problem – or worse.

Such is the case in Miles City, says Dr. Matthews.

“Often we see the same patient several times, and each time the patient can use a voucher if given one,” he said. “Most patients who use a voucher don’t return for regular or preventive care. We educate patients about good dental health when they’re in our office, but unfortunately we often only see them return when they get another tooth ache.”

Most patients who use a voucher come from Miles City, but Big Sky Smile Center draws a large patient base from the rapidly growing surrounding region. However, despite the great need, the volume of patients taking advantage of the vouchers is sporadic.

“We’ve gone a month without seeing a patient referred from oneHealth, while during other times we’ve seen three or four patients within the same week,” he said. “It’s a great program. We’re always very happy to work with oneHealth, and patients are especially appreciative to receive the vouchers.”