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Inside Dental Assisting
Nov/Dec 2013
Volume 9, Issue 6

On the Road to Better Oral Health

A look at the nonprofit dental practices and companies who give back to their communities

Kathy Zwieg, LDA, CDA

Imagine going to your dental practice every day not always knowing what is in store for you and your colleagues. Perhaps your work is performed in a 12-foot-by-12-foot-square room—reception area, sterilization and treatment area all included. Maybe your practice is in a refurbished camper trailer or you drive a small truck to work and arrive an hour early to unload and set up before patients arrive. One day you are with experienced doctors familiar with their surroundings, and the next you are side by side with third- and fourth-year dental students new to the facility. This is the career path that thousands of dental assistants choose—and love—every day.

The four programs spotlighted in this article, along with over 130 others, are part of Oral Health America’s (OHA) “Smiles Across America” Program (, through which they may receive some funding, donated dental products, and technical assistance to help provide the services in these identified areas of great need. In addition to the great works by these nonprofits, dental companies are doing what they can to help the disadvantaged.

Lifting the Barriers to Care

Welcome to the world of nonprofit dental practices across the country, which serve those who cannot otherwise gain access to dental services for themselves and their families. Dental disease is the most common chronic childhood illness in this country, affecting 50% of first-graders and 80% of 17-year-olds. More than 51 million hours of school time are lost in the United States annually due to dental-related illness.

At the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas (CHCSEK), CEO Krista Postai talks about the communities that her staff serves: The health center operates seven sites in four counties in a corner of Kansas ranked in the bottom 25% of health statistics for the state. Fifty percent of the children are born into low-income situations, one in three elementary schoolchildren have visible signs of tooth decay—in some districts it is one in two—and these communities have the highest rate of reported child abuse, neglect, and out-of-home placement in Kansas. Postai says, “This is one-third of our population—and all of our future.”

But CHCSEK is striving to change these statistics. Currently, the staff screens more than 22,000 children from 12 counties annually, including area schools, Head Start programs, WIC, and child care facilities. From 2011 to 2013 the center provided more than 8,000 dental cleanings, 12,000 fluoride applications, and 15,000 sealants. In July 2013 CHCSEK was identified as Kansas’ largest Safety Net Dental Clinic and a National Institutes of Health-Funded Research Site. The center now provides preventive care in more than 130 locations and restorative care in high-need schools. Seven of the sites it serves have school-based sealant programs in at least 75% of the schools, four are at 100%. In 2004, Smiles Across Kansas data indicated that 28% of third-grade children in southeast Kansas had untreated dental decay, and 2012 information suggests that number has presently been reduced to 12%.

To what does Krista Postai attribute to their progress? A great deal of team work and perseverance by a good number of people, she explains, adding, “I learned very early that the dental assistants keep the flow and energy of the practice going. They are our ‘air traffic controllers’ in dentistry. In our nonprofit world, they get the patients settled and fears alleviated—children and adults. They calm nerves, hold patients’ hands, and explain procedures, overall helping all parties to overcome our own individual barriers to care. Dental assistants are both patient advocates and dentist advocates.

“I can tell where dental assistants have been in our facilities, because they leave it cleaner than they found it,” says Postai. On the rare occasion of some downtime, “I can count on them to keep busy; they are the right and left hands of the practice. While the entire team is important, the dental assistant is responsible for 75% of each appointment time. They are with the patient from check in to completion and are critical to our success.”

In Las Vegas, Nevada, the Huntridge Teen Clinic provides medical and dental services for uninsured teens ages 12 to 18 years. Their unique setting treats teens who likely have never been to a dentist and are uninsured. These patients mostly have questionable nutrition and limited knowledge and access to oral hygiene, and they are often apprehensive, fearful, and undependable regarding appointments. At the clinic, the small group of paid staff and a larger group of volunteers unite to support the program’s mission to eliminate chronic dental pain and keep these teens in school until they graduate. Presently, they treat about 1,000 teens annually, of whom 750 are new patients. Their hope is that their work will also impart knowledge of good oral hygiene habits to younger family members in the home setting.

Executive Director Steve Williams credits the dental assistants on his team, saying, “They are part of the wheel that turns our initiatives. I entrust them with not only effectively communicating with our patients, but with our staff doctors and volunteers as well. They are also the heart and soul of our clinic’s supplies, organization, storage, and sterilization. Our assistants are vital to what we do; we cannot function without them.”

Shaping Services to Patients’ Lives

“In Minnesota, the scope of practice for licensed dental assistants (LDAs) has become so extensive that they are able to successfully complete the majority of preventive services required by children in public health clinics,” says Sarah Wovcha, JD, MPH, Executive Director of Children’s Dental Services (CDS) in Minnesota. “As such, LDAs are an integral and cost-effective member of the public health dental team.”

In Minnesota, only 42% of children on medical assistance (MA) receive dental services compared with the national average of 58%. Focusing on the children who are not being served, CDS has quadrupled its size since 2000 due to the increased dental needs of low-income families in the state. Today, CDS is the single largest oral health provider of on-site dental care in Minnesota schools and Head Start centers. It provides specialty programs to those who are blind, deaf, disabled, or autistic, and culturally targeted programs to those from East African, Latino, Southeast Asian and Native American backgrounds. In 2012, more than 83,000 families benefited from the CDS outreach program and more than 15,000 children and pregnant women were screened. One of CDS’ greatest strengths is its cultural diversity. Of the 75 people on staff, 20 hail from different countries and speak at least 17 languages.

Since 1995, The Children’s Dental Center of Greater Los Angeles (TCDC) has strived to make a positive difference in the lives of dentally underserved children and their caregivers. They began by utilizing two buildings named in terms that children can relate to: “The Smile Store,” where state-of-the-art oral healthcare is provided, and “The Shannon Kelley Tooth Fairy Cottage,” where education and screenings take place. The “cottage” provides unique interactive learning stations on health and oral health topics as a child could understand. The stations include Professor Seemore Science’s Lab, Aunt Dottie’s Nutrition Kitchen, and Dr. Hygiene’s Hideaway.

TCDC’s promise is that “We will care for every child as we would our own.” By the end of this year, the center will have reached 1 million encounters by providing more than 120,000 treatment visits, educating over 760,000 children and their caregivers, and screening over 235,000 children both on-site and at schools and various community events. The program can demonstrate it has saved the state and federal governments well over $5 million in averted costs.

Dennis Young, President and CEO, states that the registered dental assistants (RDAs) with TCDC are part of every aspect of the operation. “They not only work with the regular general practice doctors, but with all specialties, as well as with the students and faculty from the UCLA School of Dentistry. Additionally, they are responsible for all dental supplies and infection control procedures. Everyone is bilingual, so they frequently translate for the doctors and other staff, providing education to patients critical for understanding and treatment plan acceptance. Volunteers are constantly offering their praises about our assistants’ attitudes and high level of skill sets. Our dental assistants believe in what we do and go out of their way to provide quality care.”

The Power of Corporate Commitment

Without significant involvement and contributions by an increasing number of dental suppliers and manufacturers, the impact of these initiatives would be far less or even nonexistent in some locations. Brad McLaughlin, Development Director for OHA, expresses his heartfelt thanks to every organization that contributes financially to OHA and also donates to its National Product Donation Project. “Because of the financial and in-kind donations of companies like Patterson and the Patterson Foundation, Ivoclar Vivadent, Pulpdent, DENTSPLY, Trident, and 3M ESPE, Smiles Across America distributes more than 500,000 units of donated dental product annually, reaching more than 900 treatment partners since 1998. Oral Health America offers sealants, fluoride varnish, prophy paste, toothbrushes, toothpaste, sugar-free gum, dental flossers, and other supplies from these leading corporate partners.”

Dennis Young agrees, “Without the generosity of these organizations, TCDC would have reached far fewer children and provided significantly fewer services. We are forever grateful for their contributions and participation.”

Beyond contributions to organizations, such as OHA, dental suppliers are also identifying and developing their own initiatives that employees and interested parties can support. The Patterson Foundation is a private foundation funded almost entirely by current and former Patterson employees. Though the organization is separate from the business, the Foundation shares Patterson Companies’ mission to provide assistance to nonprofit organizations that relate to dentistry, veterinary medicine, and occupational and physical health, especially those for the disadvantaged.

Grins for a Good Cause is a Patterson Dental initiative that began in 2010 to raise awareness of breast cancer and help support underserved women and their families. In partnership with breast cancer organizations, Patterson offices across the country host events to help people in their communities who are affected by the disease. Dental manufacturers and dental offices become involved as well, making Grins for a Good Cause one of the most inspiring charitable success stories within the organization.

In addition, Patterson Dental is a longtime charitable partner to Dental Lifeline Network (DLN). Together with its vendor partners and network of local branches, the company is committed to raising money, compiling resources, and motivating volunteers for the national humanitarian organization. Each year, Patterson Dental and its business partners raise funds for DLN’s dental care programs, which provide comprehensive dental services for people with disabilities or who are elderly or medically at-risk. In support of DLN’s Donated Dental Services program, Patterson territory representatives continually sell the highest number of DentaCheques product value books to dental practices, with 100 percent of the proceeds going directly to support dental care for people in need.

In addition to its support of Smiles Across America, Pulpdent Corporation exhibits its corporate responsibility by providing special programs and discounts for public health institutions and qualified organizations.

Improving the oral health in older adults has shown to be a rather challenging task. This has become apparent in the US, where more than 10,000 people retire every day—with many of them having insufficient dental care. For this reason, Ivoclar Vivadent has chosen to support one of Oral Health America’s other initiatives, The Wisdom Tooth Project. The company’s commitment ranges from financial contributions to product donations. Clinical studies have demonstrated that insufficient oral health is not only a secluded problem but also negatively affects the course of various other diseases. Ivoclar Vivadent believes one can have a high quality of life at any age–thanks to good oral health.

Henry Schein, Inc. and the Henry Schein Foundation recognize that service extends beyond the workplace to our home communities. This spirit of corporate citizenship is exemplified through Henry Schein Cares, the company’s global social responsibility program, which seeks to narrow the disparity in the delivery of healthcare services and information to underserved and at-risk communities around the world.

Through Henry Schein Cares, the company gives back to healthcare markets and communities around the world, using core competencies in creative and innovative ways. The company seeks to “help health happen” by expanding access to care for at-risk and underserved populations globally through its focus on three areas: wellness, prevention, and treatment; emergency preparedness and relief; and building capacity in the training of professionals and the delivery of healthcare services. While the company supports several other oral care initiatives, Henry Schein Dental is the exclusive provider of professional dental products for the American Dental Association’s “Give Kid’s A Smile” program, celebrating its 11th year in 2014.

Ultradent donates products to humanitarian efforts locally, nationally, and internationally. Additionally, Ultradent sponsors a nonprofit organization, the Diversity Foundation, a progressive outreach program committed to preventing hate crimes and intolerance. The program promotes diversity and fosters multicultural awareness among individuals from all backgrounds.

Thankful Outcomes

Each day throughout the year, the entire healthcare community has reason to be thankful, not only for the few organizations profiled here, but for the thousands of individuals and millions of dollars and donated resources from across the country. To quote Oral Health America, “we are changing lives, one smile at a time.”

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