Colorado clinics serving Medicaid patients are adding dental services

Mary Otto

About Mary Otto

Mary Otto, a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer, is AHCJ's topic leader on oral health and the author of "Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America." She can be reached at mary@healthjournalism.org.

Photo: Kate Sumbler via Flickr

Photo: Kate Sumbler via Flickr

What if you could get your dental and medical care in the very same place?

A growing number of Colorado residents, including Medicaid children and refugee families are doing just that, thanks to an innovative program led by the nonprofit Delta Dental Foundation.

In response to a scarcity of dental clinics and Medicaid dentists available for the state’s poorer residents, the foundation kicked off its Colorado Medical-Dental Integration Project (CO MDI) last year.

The $3.3 million initiative has provided 16 medical organizations with the funding to buy dental equipment and hire dental hygienists to serve residents in 18 communities in up to 24 locations across the state.

David Olinger recently reported on the innovative program in a story for The Denver Post.

“Eight of Colorado’s 64 counties have been classified as dental deserts, with no dentists or community-based dental clinics,” Olinger told readers. “Poor families face an extra barrier. According to the Colorado Health Institute, only one-third of practicing dentists treated Medicaid patients in fiscal 2013-14, and 5 percent of those dentists treated nearly half the clients”

Doctors Care doesn’t have a dentist on staff, but now employs Doreen Swatloski, a registered dental hygienist who cleans teeth and conducts screenings for potential problems.

For Olinger’s story, the reporter visited a participating Doctor’s Care clinic in Littleton, where 9-year-old Nathan Martin had an appointment for a dental checkup.

The hygienist examined Nathan’s teeth and found them looking good. “’I am happy to see that,” Swatloski said in the story. “Do you brush them morning and night?”

‘Yes,” he said, without hesitation. During his visit, Nathan was treated with a sealant that will help protect his molars from cavities for 15 years.

Under the CO MDI program, preventive dental care is delivered in both medical exam rooms and in dental hygiene rooms that have been set up in the participating clinics. Hygienists work to the full scope of their Colorado licenses, offering screenings, education, fluoride varnishes, dental sealants, x-rays, cleanings, scaling and root planings. The hygienists refer patients to dentists for any restorative care.

In another angle on the initiative, Denver-based NBC 9News reported last year that in its first months, the program also was helping to get dental care to refugees and asylum-seekers who had re-settled in the state after fleeing war and other unrest in their home countries.

“According to figures from the Colorado Department of Health and Human Services, about 50,000 refugees and asylum-seekers have legally relocated to Colorado in the past 35 years,” reporter TaRhonda Thomas noted.

Program co-founder and dental hygienist Carolyn Anello, speaking from the Worthmore Clinic in Aurora, told Thomas that about 20 percent of her patients were getting care for the first time in their lives.

“We’ve seen patients come back for their re-care and have better oral hygiene and less disease,” Anello said.

Burmese refugee Oomg Kuhn told Thomas he was grateful for the help he was receiving. “Very good, very convenient to our community,” he said through a translator.

Is there an innovative approach to getting dental care to poor children, refugees or asylum-seekers in your community? Are efforts being made to integrate dental and medical services in places where dental care is scarce? Maybe there is a story to tell.

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