1 of 2
The Richmond Smiles dental van team includes (from left) driver and support technician Terry Cain, senior assistant Linda Wynn, program coordinator Audrey M. Jones, dentist Dr. Shorn McMoore and assistant Wilma Robinson. Three other dentists also work with the van. Photo by Isaac Harrell
2 of 2
Wynn and McMoore assist a patient inside the van. Photo by Isaac Harrell
As factors like layoffs, business closings and lack of insurance raise the numbers of people who can't afford dental care, public and private groups in Richmond and around the state are stepping up their efforts to ensure that patients' health doesn't suffer.
"We have seen more of a need," says Dr. Roger Wood of Wood, Dunlevy, Lombardozzi and Eddleton, a pediatric dental practice in Midlothian. "A lot of patients in my private practice are putting procedures off. I am not going to turn a child who is in pain away if the parents can't pay."
The Virginia Dental Association Foundation is one of the organizations leading the way in efforts to offer free dental care. Programs include Mission of Mercy, weekend clinics that provide free dental care; Donated Dental Services, coverage to the elderly and disabled; and Give Kids A Smile, a program of the American Dental Association in association with the VDAF and the Richmond Dental Society to provide free oral health care services to children from low-income families.
Mission of Mercy has provided more than $26.4 million in care in underserved areas of the state during the last 12 years, and Donated Dental Services has given more than $8.5 million worth of care since 1997. Give Kids a Smile, a one-day clinic usually held the first Friday in February, has offered exams and cleanings to more than 50,000 children throughout the state. The Give Kids a Smile event at Richmond International Raceway Midway during the spring NASCAR races on April 27 and 28 provided dental health screenings and education to approximately 400 children.
One of the largest factors influencing a person's ability to access dental services nationwide is geography, says Dr. Elizabeth Miller, a pediatric dentist with Atkins, Maestrello, Miller & Associates on Gaskins Road. In some rural areas in Virginia, the ratio may be as low as one dentist to more than 5,000 patients. "In response to this need, many rural areas in Virginia such as Goochland, Roanoke and Martinsville have developed their own free dental health clinics to meet the dental needs in these areas," she says.
Volunteers are involved in a variety of activities aside from the foundation's offerings that include programs organized by individual dentists through churches and through CARITAS (a Richmond area network that helps meet basic needs such as food, shelter and employment), says Dr. Elizabeth C. Reynolds of Brown, Reynolds and Snow Dentistry on Patterson Avenue, adding that dentists also work through women's shelters. "Virginia dentists are devoted to bringing oral health care to those who lack it."
VCU School of Dentistry students also volunteer their services during events such as Project Homeless Connect, an event that provided services to homeless individuals. Held at the Richmond Convention Center last November, the event served more than 600 people.
Virginia was commended by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) for its efforts to improve dental access through its Smiles for Children initiative, which helps children who are enrolled in Medicaid and the Family Access to Medical Insurance Security Plan. A review by CMS notes that between 2005 and 2010, Virginia more than doubled the number of dentists participating in the programs, from 620 to 1,264. Patient enrollment in Smiles for Children also rose by about 66 percent — from 458,406 in fiscal year 2005 to 762,180 in fiscal year 2011.
The need for services, especially emergency services, continues to grow. A February study from The Pew Center on the States showed that preventable dental conditions were the main reason for more than 830,000 emergency room visits in the United States in 2009, a critical point recently referenced by the Virginia Oral Health Coalition. The coalition, formed in December 2010, is an alliance of organizations and individuals working to bring oral health to all Virginians through policy change, public awareness and new initiatives.
One program aimed at cutting down emergency room visits and promoting preventative dental care is the Richmond Smiles Van Program, an initiative of the Virginia Department of Health and the Richmond City Health District in collaboration with Bon Secours Richmond Health System. The program provides emergency dental services free of charge to people without dental insurance. The dental van travels to four designated sites in targeted areas throughout the city on a regular basis.
Registered dental hygienist and program coordinator Audrey M. Jones says that when the van first started offering services four years ago, it became "glaringly evident that the main problem was emergency care," meaning tooth extractions and fillings. "It became evident that people were in pain."
The van serves the disadvantaged as well as the unemployed and people without dental benefits. During fiscal year 2008-2009, the dental van assisted 739 patients. By 2010-2011, that number had climbed to 1,515, Jones says.
"We have a special clinic for children where we partner with VCU Pediatric Dentistry and go into four housing projects," Jones says. "We also do health fairs with dental screenings."
Jones as well as Wood and other volunteers have been touched by the response from people who have received free services. "They hug us and cry," Wood says. "They talk about the pain they had been in. It's fantastic to see that response. Dentists don't usually have people get up and hug them."