Oral health, as one part of the total public health conversation, is cyclical. That is, every so often it becomes the focus of attention, typically when a Surgeon General declares "oral health is an important part of ... ." Then it fades away, a victim of budget problems and attention drawn to more riveting issues, only to return in 10 years or so when, once again, someone discovers that, yes, the mouth is part of the human body.
Dentists are not affected by this phenomenon. Their training has imparted an appreciation of how the condition of the oral cavity factors into overall health. That training also includes a message that the that the title "doctor" carries with it a concomitant obligation to see that people in need are treated, regardless of a business relationship.
The difficulty a large part of our population experiences in finding dental care is well documented and has a long history. Until the end of the 20th century it was not addressed in any organized way. In the year 2000, as part of a well-researched and multi-faceted effort on the part of the Washington Dental Service Foundation, the Mount Baker District Dental Society embarked on its first dental access effort, joining with many other dental societies in launching an Access to Baby and Child Dentistry program. The program is now present statewide and is responsible for the fact that Washington leads the nation in providing preventive dental care to low-income children, according to Dentistry IQ in 2013.
The Access to Baby and Child Dentistry program combines active enlistment of patients, a compensation increase to break-even level and case management. The result has been a doubling in the number of Department of Social and Health Services-covered children who receive dental care. Mount Baker District Dental Society has Access to Baby and Child Dentistry programs in all four counties of the society area.
In 2006 the dental society, reacting to a critical access problem for adults, opened a volunteer weekend clinic in cooperation with the Interfaith Community Health Center. Over the last seven years the clinic, christened DAD, for Donated Adult Dental, has provided $40,000 to $50,000 a year in donated care while treating 200-250 patients annually. Planning for expansion of a similar clinic in Mount Vernon is going on at this time. Many in the dentist population prefer to do their volunteer work in their own dental office. To make use of that resource, a referral mechanism, in Whatcom County through Whatcom Alliance for Healthcare Access and in Skagit County through Skagit Community Action, is able to match willing dental offices to people with dental problems and no ability to pay.
There are a host of other activities supported by Mount Baker District Dental Society: One-day programs such as Homeless Connect, Sealant Day, Children's Dental Health Month screenings and financial donations to Bellingham Technical College scholarships for dental assistants and hygienists and to Washington Oral Health Foundation.
A major factor in Mount Baker District Dental Society access activities is the relationship with our many community partners: Interfaith Coalition, Interfaith Community Health Center, Whatcom Alliance for Healthcare Access, Skagit Community Action, Northwest Career and Technical Academy, Whatcom Oral Health Coalition and Peacehealth St. Joseph Health Center.
Equally important are the organizations that help us to fund our various outreach and support programs: Bellingham Bay Rotary Club, Whidbey Island Bank, Skagit State Bank, Skagit Valley Hospital, Washington Dental Service Foundation, Chuckanut Health Foundation, Mount Baker Dental Hygiene Society, St. Joseph Hospital, Physician's and Dentists Credit Bureau, Washington Dental Insurance Agency and Burkhart Dental Supply.
Creating access to dental care is a complicated undertaking. It seldom is as straightforward as making a diagnosis and writing a prescription. It almost always requires some kind of surgical procedure, which can be demanding and time-consuming. The services required are rarely available in an emergency room and so must somehow be made available in another setting. Some progress has been made in solving the problem, but there is considerable distance left to cover. The Mount Baker District Dental Society remains dedicated to the effort.
The Mount Baker District Dental Society will host it's annual year-end dental care access recognition and fundraising celebration with a wine dinner at 6 p.m. May 2 at the Skagit Golf and Country Club, 16701 Country Club Dr, Burlington. Tickets are $125. For information contact Brandi Damon at 360-676-2683 or
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Curtis Smith is retired from practice in Bellingham and is a member of the Mount Baker District Dental Society's dental care access committee.
The author's information was updated April 29, 2014.