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Partnership among Jesuits, Dentists, Sioux Tribe Improves Care for Underserved in South Dakota

November 17, 2014

A partnership between the South Dakota Dental Association (SDDA) and a Jesuit mission on the Rosebud Indian Reservation is ensuring that people living in one of the nation’s poorest counties receive dental care.
The St. Francis Mission opened a dental clinic in 2012 to provide care for members of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, about 90 percent of whom suffer from chronic tooth decay or gum disease. About 40 percent of children and 60 percent of adults have moderate to urgent dental needs.

So far this year, the clinic has accepted 500 new patients and completed treatment for about half of them, according to Marty Jones, the dental clinic director.

The clinic is only open on specific dates, she said. New patients first undergo comprehensive examinations, and those who require follow-up treatment are given priority during the next date the clinic is open.

“This collaboration really stemmed from two independent projects to improve the oral health of the Lakota people,” said Paul Knecht, executive director of the South Dakota Dental Association. “The disease rates on the reservation are higher there than most other places.”

Father John Hatcher, president of the St. Francis Mission, saw the tremendous need for dental care among the Lakota people. He established a dental clinic at the mission by converting an administrative building into a clinic and working with out-of-state patrons of the mission to secure funding and equipment.

The state dental association saw an opportunity to collaborate with the tribe and Jesuits, said Mr. Knecht.

“In order to comply with state law, a group of three member dentists agreed to own the practice,” he said. “We then began recruiting volunteer dentists and hygienists for the clinic.’”

Volunteers – including members of the SDDA as well as students and faculty from the Creighton University School of Dentistry in Omaha, Neb. – provide services that include dental exams, X-rays, fillings, root canals, extractions, cleanings, treatments, follow-up checkups, and preventive care education. The latter is especially important because many people on the Rosebud Reservation have never learned about proper dental hygiene.

“On the entire reservation, there is only one dental clinic, operated by the Indian Health Service, and they are chronically underfunded and understaffed,” said Mr. Knecht. “By the time most folks arrive there for an appointment, their dental health is so bad that the only option is to extract teeth. So it has had the reputation of being a place where you go only when you need your teeth pulled.”

The St. Francis Mission Dental Clinic, by contrast, is establishing itself as a dental home where the patients receive regular preventive care and comprehensive restorative care as needed.

“They’re very well taken care of when they’re at the clinic,” said Mr. Knecht. “We’re not just seeing people who are in pain come in. We’re seeing people come in for follow-up care, repeat visits, and preventive care.”

Anyone interested in making donations to the mission are encouraged to contact Marty Jones at marty.jones@sfmission.net or 605.319.1275.