Because demand is so high, public health dental clinic must turn away patients
Demand for oral health care is so acute that Grand Forks' only public health dental clinic is turning some patients away. Valley Community Health Centers Dental Clinic, which opened 11 months ago, is averaging 17 patients a day, including 6 to 8 ...
Demand for oral health care is so acute that Grand Forks' only public health dental clinic is turning some patients away.
Valley Community Health Centers Dental Clinic, which opened 11 months ago, is averaging 17 patients a day, including 6 to 8 emergencies -- patients who are experiencing intense pain.
And that leaves little, if any, time for its staff to concentrate on one of its priorities -- dental hygiene education and preventive programs.
"Our goal is to prevent problems, not just treat them," said Sharon Ericson, chief executive officer of Valley Community Health Centers, Northwood, N.D., which operates the clinic. "We've found that people don't understand oral hygiene, they don't understand how important it is to their overall general health."
The public health dental clinic, located at 212 S. Fourth St., in the old Deaconess Hospital, is designed to meet the needs of uninsured or underinsured clients in Grand Forks and Polk counties. But the demand has spread far beyond those borders. They're coming from as far away as Devils Lake and Bemidji.
In its first 11 months, the clinic logged more than 4,100 patient visits by a total of 1,660 people -- 930 from 10 North Dakota counties and 730 from seven Minnesota counties.
"After not even being open for a year, I'd have to say we didn't realize just how intense the need would be," Ericson said. "To say that we're stunned by the level of need is not too fine a point on it."
In an effort to address the need for dental hygiene education and preventive health care, she said the clinic will limit the number of patients it will accept. Emergency cases now are routinely booked three days in advance.
"Three days is a long time, especially if you're in intense pain," she said. "It's a public health issue. People with mouth pain don't go to school, don't go to work."
Patients often go instead to urgent care facilities at area hospitals to find treatment.
When it opened a year ago, it was estimated that about 7,500 Medicaid recipients, including almost 4,300 children, in Grand Forks and Polk counties had little or no access to dental care.
That's because few dentists -- just two of about 30 in Grand Forks County -- treat Medicaid recipients or their families. The reason is Medicaid reimburses dentists an average of just about 55 percent of their treatment costs, according to the North Dakota Department of Human Services.
The dental clinic is part of Valley Community Health Centers, a nonprofit community-owned organization that receives federal funding to provide monetary discounts for those who either don't have or don't have enough health insurance. The organization also opened a new medical clinic this year in Larimore, N.D.
When it opened a year ago, the dental clinic had a staff of four, including one dentist, Dr. Grant Korsmo, a Northwood native.
Today, it has two dentists, including Devils Lake native Dr. Robert Remmick, who started in June. It also employs two dental hygienists, two dental assistants, and two other staff members.
Ericson said the clinic is encouraging people who have family dentists to continue seeing those dentists.
She said the clinic's education program will address youths and families, with the help of local dentists and other health care professionals. For example, she said an American Dental Association sponsored a "Give Kids a Smile" educational program.
"We'd like to get them to bring someone here to do the same thing," she said. "We're trying to find ways for the rest of the dental community to help us."
About half of the 1,660 clinic patients are children, another 25 percent are between 17 and 30, according to Ericson.
The clinic was launched with a $500,000 fund drive, which included federal and state grants, as well as local contributions, such as donated equipment.
Ericson said that while the clinic is operating within its budget, it has a continuing need for funds to buy new equipment. Much of the donated equipment was used. She said a new dentist chair costs about $7,500.
"We've had enormous support from the community since we started," she said. "What we really know now is that the need won't go away.
"But we're excited about the future," she added. "This continues to be one of the most exciting things I've ever been involved with."
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