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Open Door, MOM help North Carolina citizens in need

Burlington, N.C.—The Open Door Dental Clinic is a name that's both welcoming to patients and a fitting definition of its founder's philosophy: "It's the obligation that goes with licensure that I should do what I can do to alleviate pain and suffering, and provide dental care for all our citizens, not just those who can pay."

By the numbers, Dr. Steven Slott has more than made good on his pledge to bring dental care to underserved residents in his home state: Since 2003, through the mobile free Missions of Mercy program, which he brought to North Carolina, more than 17,000 people in need have received free dental care worth more than $5 million. The MOM project, he says, is a "natural extension" of the Open Door Dental Clinic, which he launched in Burlington, N.C., in 1998, while serving on the Alamance County Board of Health.

"I worked closely with our health department in opening a new children's clinic," Dr. Slott relates. "As this clinic would be for children during the day, I thought it would be great to have a free clinic for adults operating a night or two per week." Soon, in response to overwhelming demand, the clinic was open three nights each week, providing extractions and restorative care.

Today, says Dr. Slott, Open Door devotes all its efforts to supporting its MOM initiative, the mobile free dental program modeled after that founded by Dr. Terry Dickinson, executive director of the Virginia Dental Association.

It was after seeing a weekend MOM clinic in action in Martinsville, Va., in 2003 that Dr. Slott was "immediately sold on the idea that we could make the concept work in North Carolina."

According to Dr. Dickinson, "our philosophies about access to care were in sync. Dr. Slott felt, as I did, that in addition to simply getting this dental license, we have this responsibility to those who, for one reason or another, simply don't have the means or access to needed dental care. We see our model as a piece of the safety net and a part of the solution to the access to care issue."

With startup help from Dr. Dickinson and use of the VDA's equipment, Dr. Slott and volunteers did "four or five clinics the first year in various locations around the state, gradually increasing each year to our current 2008 level of 16 clinics." Now, with an annual operating budget of $50,000, N.C. MOM counts among its regular volunteers a small group of dentists and other dental professionals, plus Dr. Slott's wife Nancy and oldest son Bo. These "groupies," who've all been with the program since 2003, he says, are then joined by as many as 100 or more professional, student and general volunteers at individual clinic locations.

A 2008 N.C. MOM event was a two-day clinic in Hillsborough, N.C., Oct. 10-11, sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Dentistry. The university's student volunteer organization, ENNEAD, was largely responsible for coordinating the event. More than 180 UNC dental student volunteers, along with dental school faculty and staff and other volunteers, contributed $92,000 worth of care to 225 patients, reports Savannah Gelesko, who served as ENNEAD's project manager for the clinic.

Ms. Gelesko began volunteering with Dr. Slott and the MOM movement as an undergraduate member of UNC's pre-dental honor society, Delta Delta Sigma. "If every dentist had Dr. Slott's passion for service, as well as his determination and work ethic to put his vision into action, I feel certain we could solve the access to care problems so real to our communities and our profession."

Ms. Gelesko, who will graduate from UNC dental school in May 2010 and then enter a six-year oral and maxillofacial surgery residency, says that Dr. Slott has "truly impacted my life and my career path; he has shown me that one can be fully committed to their career and, at the same time, be fully committed to serving their community through dentistry."

Dr. John N. Williams, dean of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Dentistry, believes that Dr. Slott's commitment to increasing oral health access within the state "makes him such an important role model to our students," and inspires them to make a commitment to providing pro bono care. Dr. Slott is "always on hand to support the students, but he also empowers them," says Dean Williams. "He encourages the leadership of students in the clinics," treating them as his colleagues and showing them the importance of a team approach in dentistry.

"The school is highly attuned to the access problem and seeks to do all it can to support and assist this MOM program," says Dr. Slott. He says the Hillsborough MOM clinic was "a highly successful endeavor, and the hope is to make it an annual event."

Dr. Slott also credits the North Carolina Dental Society as an important and "highly supportive" partner, and says he hopes the group will eventually take over N.C. MOM. Dr. M. Alec Parker, executive director of NCDS, concurs, saying that the two will likely "merge to form an even stronger community outreach program" that will also continue to rely on support from the dental school as well as from a new dental school planned for East Carolina University. While such programmatic efforts are important, Dr. Parker is quick to credit his colleague's contributions: "We need more dentists with Steve's passion. He has almost single-handedly been responsible for arranging clinics and volunteers where more than $5 million in treatment has been donated over the last five years to those who are in need. He's one of a kind!"

Looking ahead, Dr. Slott hopes his work will continue to have "a significant and positive impact on the access to dental care problem which now exists in North Carolina, as it does in all other states." Along with involving as many dentists, dental hygienists and dental students as possible to donate their time to treat the underserved, he hopes the MOM clinics will also raise awareness about the access issue among North Carolina politicians and other decision-makers. He wants them to understand "the social and fiscal responsibility of raising the dental Medicaid rate of reimbursement" to keep untreated and preventable dental problems from becoming more expensive and more life-threatening.

Dr. Slott says that helping those in need has been rewarding, and that his service also has enabled him to "enjoy the friendship of some of the greatest people in the world." From a personal standpoint, he adds, "this program has meant the world to me, and I am extremely proud of what it has accomplished."