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Texas Dentist Spearheads Day-of-Care Event for Underserved in Home Community

August 20, 2014

It’s a familiar scene throughout the country, whether in cities, Native American communities or remote rural areas: people lining up overnight outside schools, community centers, fairgrounds, even an airplane hangar, to receive free dental care the following day.

Most of these people are desperately in need of some type of restorative care, such as fillings, extractions or root canals. And for many, this is the only way they can receive it.

Missions of Mercy are one- and two-day events at which dentists converge in large-scale, temporary clinics to provide free services for the nation’s most underserved people. 

Created in 2000 by Virginia Dental Association Executive Director Dr. Terry Dickinson, Missions of Mercy have grown to serve nearly 40,000 people, providing care that otherwise would have cost $21.5 million, at events throughout the country last year. 

The Texas Dental Association was the first state dental association to replicate Virginia’s model, after Dr. Dickinson invited his friend, Dr. David Nichols, of Tyler, Texas, to attend Virginia’s second annual event. The Virginia Dental Association now hosts six to eight Mission of Mercy events each year across the state. 

“I came back to Texas and thought, ‘this is a great model,’” recounts Dr. Nichols. “The following year, three of us in Texas decided to host a Mission of Mercy, and I think we had about 2,000 people show up seeking dental care.”

Dr. Nichols brought the Mission of Mercy concept to the Texas Dental Association Smiles Foundation, which organized the first Texas Mission of Mercy in Tyler. 

The model proved successful, and soon other states would follow suit. After the fourth Texas Mission of Mercy, Dr. Nichols and his colleagues decided to host a similar type of program in his home community, Tyler.

“The community was completely behind it, and in the following years we built a huge support base,” said Dr. Nichols.

Texas now hosts several Missions of Mercy throughout the state. And dentists in Tyler continue to hold their local event every other year at the Bethesda Health Clinic.

This year, about 40 dentists provided care to nearly 500 people. 

“We do it in February, and people still show up a mile long in the middle of the night,” said Dr. Nichols. “That tells you what type of need exists in the community.”

Dentists and other volunteers triage the patients from 7:30 a.m. until noon the day of the event, evaluating each person’s condition.

Some people receive treatment that same day, but most get referral slips that guarantee them an appointment in one of 12 dental clinics the following day. 

The no-show rate for patients referred from the Mission of Mercy events held in Tyler is only about 10 percent – dramatically lower than the no-show rates of up to 60 percent that dentists have reported in some public health settings. 

Students at a local dental hygiene school also volunteer and provide teeth cleanings. The local Salvation Army and six restaurants provide food for the patients. 

The next event will be held in February 2016.