Restoring Dignity: Dental Day Helps U.P. Residents Access Oral Health Care
Imagine being unable to eat or having to miss work because of severe mouth pain caused by a lack of access to dental care.
Those are just two of the anecdotal patient cases from the first Superior Dental Day held in 2016. Both patients were treated free of charge and reported positive oral health results moving forward.
A volunteer-driven effort, Superior Dental Day returns on Saturday, April 15 at the West Ishpeming Dental Center, which provides space for the event free of charge. Staff volunteer their time as well, along with many other local dentists and hygienists – 35 total are scheduled to participate, taking shifts to accommodate 65 registered patients. Another 30 patients are on the wait list, which highlights the need for services.
The program is the brainchild of the UP Area Health Education Center, (UP AHEC) based out of Northern Michigan University in Marquette. The team at UP AHEC, Cindy Noble, executive director, Lisa Hyde, executive secretary, and Carole Touchinski, program manager, have been busy securing funding and volunteers for the second annual event. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan is a financial supporter.
When registration opened for residents of Marquette, Alger and Baraga counties in late February, slots filled up in less than two days. Touchinski said the opportunity to have oral health issues addressed is appealing for people who haven’t been able to access traditional dental services. She said oftentimes people might be working two part-time jobs that don’t offer insurance or don’t make enough to feel like they can afford care.
“What we are seeking to do is help those individuals who kind of fall between the cracks of the social support programs that are out there and available to some,” Touchinski said.
Because many programs already exist for children, Dental Day is just for adults. Appointments are available to uninsured or underinsured adults with incomes that fall at or below 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines. Clients receive dental assessments, x-rays and cleanings and can get fillings or even have teeth pulled if necessary.
Touchinski said some registered patients called with really significant pain they need taken care of.
“This allows them an opportunity at least to get some of that pain addressed so that they are more able to live comfortably, with dignity and take the next steps necessary to improve their lives,” she said.
Fixing dental problems and helping people get healthy from an oral perspective restores dignity, Touchinski explained. They leave feeling better and are also equipped to carry through on new habits.
Basic dental hygiene techniques are covered during the appointment and a nutritionist works with patients to help them understand how their dietary habits could be negatively affecting their oral health. Patients are also presented with different community resources they might be able to take advantage of regarding their teeth or other health and personal needs.
“We’re trying to do the best we can hooking up the clients to continued services before they leave the door that day,” she said.
Volunteer dental professionals do what they can for patients in the time they have. If a serious problem is identified, say a patient needs a root canal, they’ll be referred to dentists that might be able to help them by offering payment plans. Touchinski said several patients at last year’s event developed a rapport with their assigned dentist and were able to continue treatment with them after the day was done.
Overall, Touchinski said dental services are a high need in the Upper Peninsula. She points to Alger County, which only has limited oral health care availability. Depending on where you live and where the closest office is to you, a dentist appointment could take up an entire day when you factor in the time to drive there and back.
Touchinski said with the success of Dental Day, she’s hopeful that the model will expand to other communities so that more people can be served. For patients with appointments last year, it was a major confidence boost.
“They were very thankful and very grateful,” she said.
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Photo credit: Alan Levine