Grassroots solutions from America's dentists: Getting everyone the dental care they need

Amid all the talk of cost and access to health care come stories of innovation and grassroots solutions to get people the dental care that they need. These solutions are not the invention of big government, corporate investment or complex social programs. Rather, they are the brainchild of collaborations in and for local communities by people like you and me.

For example:

- When hospital emergency departments in Waldo County, Maine, Calhoun County, Michigan, and six counties in Maryland were inundated with low-income patients suffering from dental pain, community coalitions and partnerships with local dentists were formed. As a result, thousands have received desperately needed dental care.

- In San Antonio, Texas, Dr. Sarah Dirks, a dentist, brought care directly to vulnerable elderly people whose medical conditions confined them to nursing home facilities.

- In Vermont and Florida, Jenna Linden was a game changer in overcoming local obstacles to dental care. As a Community Dental Health Coordinator (CDHC), an initiative launched by the American Dental Association, she helped coordinate care for and provide oral health education to more than 2,800 people. Over the past three years, 34 CDHCs have been active in eight states.

- In New Orleans, Dave Wyatt received dental care for the first time in eight years following the loss of his business and insurance in Hurricane Katrina. He is one of the 172,000 patients since 2000 to receive treatment at a Mission of Mercy event, staffed by local dentists and volunteers totaling nearly $1.2 million in charitable care.

- Jeff Dalin, a St. Louis, Missouri dentist, started Give Kids a Smile in 2003 to provide dental services to underserved children. This year, 350,000 kids will be given dental care through 1,500 events in 49 states. Since the program was founded, Dr. Dalin, fellow dentists and volunteers have treated nearly 5 million children. Importantly, the program now serves as a gateway to keep children in the dental health care system.

With most states allocating a paltry one percent or less of their Medicaid budgets for dental services, dentists are also advocating for common sense Medicaid reforms and adequate funding to expand access. Nearly 70 percent of Medicaid enrolled children had at least one dental visit per year, compared to 15 percent who saw a dentist prior to Medicaid reform.

So, beyond the rhetoric of cost and access that have driven the health care debate and proposals that will take years to implement are the here and now community-created solutions.

They demonstrate that social innovation doesn’t have to be triangulated, legislated or regulated. As the solutions above suggest, the obstacles that underserved people face are many and complex but when communities come together with innovative grassroots solutions, we can eliminate those barriers and improve health outcomes.

In keeping with the American Dental Association’s mission to advance America’s oral health, 18 months ago we created Action for Dental Health to further encourage the already strong grassroots efforts by and with America’s dentists like those described above. Action for Dental Health has now taken root in every state in our nation.

ADA is demonstrating that the obstacles to better dental health are not a result of insufficient numbers of dentists, as some would imply.

A recent report by ADA’s Health Policy Institute should put to rest any speculation about a future dentist shortage. The new research shows that the number of dentists practicing per 100,000 people today has climbed more than 4 percent from 2003 to 2013 and is projected to climb 1.5 percent from 2013 to 2018 and 2.6 percent by 2033. The supply of dentists will more than serve our nation’s needs.

Additionally, when it comes to access for children, significant preliminary unpublished data was shared by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researcher Dr. Bruce Dye at a national conference this month. A preview of the data suggests a downward trend in early childhood caries (cavities) in the United States with increased treatment of children, indicating progress in kids accessing needed care.

These are promising developments for sure, but our work is not done.

ADA is nurturing the creativity of communities to develop programs that fit their unique needs. While others may be looking far out and far away--lobbying for laws to be changed, new educational systems to be built and the introduction of new types of providers-- the American Dental Association, individual dentists and the many public and private partners in Action for Dental Health are providing care today to the people who need it most.

Further, through public education efforts such as the Ad Council’s 2min2x campaign, we are raising awareness about how to prevent dental disease in the first place.

Our nation’s dentists are continuing to lead the way to community-based solutions that help underserved people now.