Jessica Omlie (left), a volunteer hygienist, helps her father, Dr. Mark Omlie, at the recent Project Homeless Connect event in Minneapolis. The volunteer dentists saw 284 homeless people needing dental care on May 23, 2011, at the Minneapolis Convention Center.
Kim McCabe (left), a volunteer hygienist. Dr. Adele Della Torre (right), volunteer dentist and head of dental services at PHC.
Susan Voigt (left), Senior Institute Director at Apple Tree Dental, and Jodi Pouliot (right), Oral Health Support Director at Apple Tree Dental.
Adele Della Torre, DDS
Board Member, Apple Tree Dental
(Editor's note: The Foundation of the Pierre Fauchard Academy awarded a grant in 2010 to Apple Tree Dental that enabled expansion and updated technology for their Mobile Dental Office level of services.)
You don't have to be a dentist to see increasing disparity in access to dental care. Recently I worked with a group of African American women who were learning advocacy skills. Almost all of them had visibly poor dental health, including one 40-year-old women who dressed impeccably but was completely edentulous and without dentures. How frequently have you observed the carious and missing teeth of people serving you in low-wage positions, such as the cashiers at big-box stores? The state of oral health among the working poor in our country today harkens back to my first trip to the Yucatan Peninsula 30 years ago, when as a young dentist I was appalled by the oral conditions. Three decades later, I am still appalled...closer to home.
Oral health disparities reflect an unbalancing trend in our country. Since the 1980s, we have seen earned incomes dramatically increase for the top 20% of households, change minimally in the middle and, when adjusted for inflation, actually decrease in the bottom 20% of households earning wages. Exacerbated by the recent economic downturns, today's homeless aren't just the stereotypical alcoholic bum on the streets, but entire families. Food pantries are cropping up all over suburban USA. If our citizens can't afford to put food on their tables, you can bet they can't afford to purchase dental health care.
A One-day Urban Mission Trip Collaboration: Project Homeless Connect and Apple Tree Dental
Considered a "best practice" among national programs to end homelessness, Project Homeless Connect (PHC) is a "one-stop shop" offering essential services to address the myriad of factors that contribute to long-term homelessness. Since December 2005, semi-annual events, co-sponsored by the City of Minneapolis and Hennepin County, have offered employment training and placement, housing assistance, legal assistance, and medical, dental, optometry, mental, and chemical health care. Since 2006, St. Paul/Ramsey County has sponsored a June PHC, and similar events are held at more than 400 sites across the country. At events in the Minneapolis Convention Center 800 to 1000 volunteers from 125 service providers serve about 2000 persons. Remarkably, dental care is the third most requested PHC service, following only housing and employment services.
How does an empty convention center hall morph into a dental clinic capable of screening and treating 300 people in one day? That happens thanks to the caring hands of many dental volunteers and the on-site care expertise of one major team player, Apple Tree Dental, a nonprofit whose mission is to improve oral health in the lives of people who face barriers to care.
Apple Tree Dental supports PHC in a big way. The night before events, their delivery trucks roll up to the convention center docks to unload and set up Mobile Dental Offices, digital x-ray units with laptops, autoclaves, instruments, and supplies so the dental area is ready for action the next morning. Their staff plans and manages the operations. With each successful event, their level of participation has increased to the point of bringing up to seven Mobile Dental Offices and 10 to 15 employees who work with the 50-plus dental volunteers.
At PHC, dedicated professional and student volunteers become an amazing team providing care that might otherwise be sought in an emergency department or not at all. Oral surgeons lead extraction services and provide their expertise if a situation gets tough. Dentists write orders, administer anesthetics, perform exodontia, and oversee assessments. Hygienists provide standardized assessments and administer anesthetics. Assistants keep operations flowing by assisting chairside, taking x-rays, and sterilizing instruments. Dental, dental hygiene, and dental assisting students provide oral hygiene and postoperative instructions and pitch in wherever needed. Students, recognizing the urgent unmet needs, often return after graduation as volunteer professionals.
At PHC, we eliminate infection and untold pain, but our quest is to do more. The reality is that we are only able to treat the most urgent needs by extracting nonrestorable teeth. In 2011, we added full-mouth debridements and the satisfaction of saving teeth.
The line of people seeking service is long, and their needs are great. We end the day with a mixture of weariness and fulfillment. On average, we screen close to 300 people, treat 100, and extract up to 300 teeth. At PHC, dedicated dental professionals and some of our society's most vulnerable members give and receive oral health care that might mean being hired, finding housing, or avoiding a life-threatening infection. We've not yet ended oral health disparitie, but we have made desperately needed care available, touching many lives in the process. Please join efforts in your own city and see for yourself.