North Carolina interactive map launches to help public find emergency dental treatment during pandemic

 Image of NC Oral Health Collaborative COVID-19 Site Access Map

A North Carolina oral health coalition, in collaboration with multiple state partners, has developed an interactive map to help guide the public to sites where emergency dental services are available throughout the Tar Heel State both during and after the COVID-19 outbreak.

The North Carolina Oral Health Collaborative, a program of the nonprofit Foundation for Health Leadership & Innovation, developed the North Carolina Oral Health Access Map in an effort to mitigate an anticipated surge in emergency department visits for nontraumatic dental problems during the pandemic.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, it is vitally important that accessible resources are provided to our state’s most vulnerable populations,” said Dr. Zachary Brian, director of the collaborative. “It is key to remember that access disparities are particularly highlighted during times of crises.”

The interactive map spotlights 121 safety-net sites that offer emergency care, allowing users to pinpoint the center they live closest to.

The project has been something that Dr. Brian had had on his to-do list since he assumed his position in 2018, but as the pandemic arrived and spread, it shot to the top of his team’s priorities, and the map went live March 26.

 Photo of Brian Zachary
Dr. Brian
“The resource map we’ve created really was a team effort, leveraging data from multiple partner agencies, and we’re proud of the support we garnered for the development of this resource,” Dr. Brian said. “Our hope is that this interactive map serves as a means to connect directly with communities, providing tangible access options, and ultimately staving off emergency department utilization.”

Emergency room visits for nontraumatic dental problems represent a serious strain on the health care system in North Carolina, Dr. Brian said. The per capita rate of emergency room dental visits in North Carolina has been reported to be more than twice the national average, as well as the fastest growing of all southern states, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

“Most emergency departments do not have a dentist on staff, and patients are typically discharged with pharmaceutical management, and the [underlying tooth] problem remains unaddressed,” Dr. Brian said.

Included on the map are federally qualified health centers, local health departments, free and charitable clinics and other safety-net settings that offer dental treatment regardless of a patient’s ability to pay. Many of these clinics offer sliding fee scales as well, in order to better serve vulnerable low-income patients.

The interactive map includes information on clinic hours and the type of oral health services currently being provided, as well as contact information.

The map was created based on extensive research conducted by North Carolina Oral Health Collaborative staff with data support from several state partners, including but not limited to the Department of Health and Human Services Oral Health Section, North Carolina Association of Free and Charitable Clinics, and the North Carolina Community Health Center Association.

“It was a yeoman’s task and to my knowledge, no other state has developed a similar tool to help keep the public out of emergency rooms due to dental conditions,” said Dr. Lewis N. Lampiris, assistant dean for community engagement and outreach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Adams School of Dentistry and adviser to the collaborative. “It would be great, in my opinion, if other states created similar interactive tools to divert those who are experiencing dental pain from emergency rooms during the epidemic.”

Dr. Brian reported that several states have reached out to him since the map was launched to inquire if he would share the algorithm that was used to create the map. He said he was happy to do so.

“Going forward, we will continue to maintain and update the North Carolina Oral Health Access Map,” Dr. Brian said. “In the near future, we plan to launch an additional layer where patients will also be able to see which languages are spoken by clinic staff.”