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Getting basic dental care to those who need it

Mercy MOMs offers free dental clinics to treat people who are falling through the cracks with their oral health care.
Mercy MOMs offers free dental clinics to treat people who are falling through the cracks with their oral health care. (Courtesy)

With the season of giving upon us, many of us are contributing to our favorite causes to help those in need. It’s a reminder of our own blessings and the very important call to give back to our communities, organizations and neighbors.

While this may be the season of giving, there are people giving back to our communities all year. In fact, we have a community of dentists who every day give the top-notch care that all of our residents expect, including at our Missions of Mercy (MOM) dental clinics that provide free oral healthcare across the state. Each year, the Maryland State Dental Association and the Maryland State Dental Association Charitable and Educational Foundation host up to six MOM clinics to treat people who are falling through the cracks with their oral health care. At these clinics, thousands of Marylanders stand in line for hours, often overnight, for x-rays, regular cleanings, extractions and restorations.

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It’s a life-changing experience.

Our dentists perform the needed procedures and help counsel patients about lifestyle choices and opportunities to see a dentist regularly. Patients often leave a MOM clinic with a new confidence to find a job or simply smile again. The first Maryland MOM was held in Cumberland in 2010 and since then we’ve provided nearly $20 million in oral health services to some of our state’s most vulnerable citizens. Just this year MOMs provided nearly $2.4 million in care.

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What MOMs is doing is a tremendous success story, and the dental association and foundation are proud to lead the way. Still more can be done. Did you know that between 2013 and 2016, we had 15 adult Marylanders die from dental infections that can lead to sepsis, endocarditis and other life threatening conditions that are treatable if caught early by a dentist. The underlying problem remains: How do we solve the systemic issue of Marylanders not seeing a dentist?

There’s no “one size fits all” solution or overnight solution, but those of us at the dental association and the foundation are taking a step-by-step approach that can begin to address the needs of our friends and neighbors seeking oral health care.

One of the initiatives that we’ve started is rerouting dental emergencies from the hospital emergency department to a dentist’s chair. While emergency departments can provide excellent care for emergency health issues, they simply aren’t equipped, nor do they have the knowledge, to provide oral health diagnostics or care. So, instead, they often send people home with opioids to treat the pain with the likely chance of seeing that same patient soon go through the same exercise. To further help address this problem, we’ve developed helpful kits for every emergency department in the state. Our kits provide information about on-call dentists in the area, what to look for when seeing a patient with a dental emergency, and the benefits, including costs, for getting that patient to a dentist.

We have results from right here in Maryland to prove that emergency department diversion programs work. In Western Maryland we put together a program with our local emergency department using community dental health coordinators, or community health workers, to ensure appropriate and cost-effective care for dental emergencies, and who can then help coordinate a continuum of care to avoid future emergency room visits. From 2011 to 2015 we were able to reduce emergency room visits by 26%, provide dental care to 1,600 patients, deliver more than $1.5 million in dental services and save $215,000 for the hospital.

Equally important is the new pilot program to provide adult dental Medicaid to a small group of Marylanders. Established through legislation last year, the program has identified 33,000 Marylanders who met certain criteria under the law, who are now eligible to be seen by dentists and get the care they deserve. Under the Medicaid pilot program, eligible enrollees are able to access up to $800 worth of dental care per year. Unfortunately, the pilot program isn’t serving our fastest growing cohort coming to MOMs and entering emergency rooms — seniors. We believe that with the Medicaid benefit, along with the results of the Western Maryland Emergency Department Diversion Program, we can show the benefits, not only to Marylanders in need of care, but the long-term fiscal interests of the state.

So, as dentists give thanks for the ability and opportunity to treat and provide care for our fellow Marylanders all year, through MOMs, expanded Medicaid, and other programs, we’ll be looking to provide care to even more people in the upcoming year.

Dr. Diane Romaine (info@AlleganySmiles.com) is a general dentist in western Maryland. She is currently the president of the Maryland State Dental Association Charitable and Educational Foundation and is a past president of the Maryland State Dental Association.

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