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Staff photos by DARWIN WEIGELMargaret Fowler, left, and Naomi Watkins paint the waiting room in February at the new Calvert Community Dental Care office in Lusby. The organization provides dental care and prevention to low income families.
Tooth decay and mouth pain make it hard to concentrate on work and school, and even to eat healthy food. In tough economic times, families can struggle to afford to seek out the regular preventative care that can protect teeth. A grassroots, volunteer association formed in partnership with the Calvert Memorial Hospital's KeepWell Center is working to make dental care and dental health education available to low-income families in Calvert County.
The Oral Health Task Force brings volunteer hygienists and paid dentists to provide basic dental care for those who cannot otherwise afford it. Funded by an annual, $133,000 grant provided by the University of Maryland Dental Hygiene Program and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the group has until now seen patients in borrowed space during hours when those dental offices would normally be closed. Thanks to an arrangement with the American Legion in Lusby, the Oral Health Task Force has leased a building that had previously held a for-profit dental practice on H.G. Trueman Road in Lusby. Members of the task force worked with local contractors to improve the space and opened it to the public in March.
Margaret Fowler, director of community wellness at Calvert Memorial Hospital, said that the organization serves patients with Maternal and Child Health Integrated Program health coverage, and provides services on a sliding scale to those with incomes up to 300 percent of poverty level. The emphasis is on serving children, many of whom first access the program through screenings done at school or through a Judy Center. Most patients live in Calvert County, although St. Mary's County residents occasionally participate in the program.
Last year, Oral Health Task Force providers served 593 patients, including 130 children, under the Calvert Community Dental Care banner of Calvert Memorial Hospital.
The group provides basic dental care: screenings, cleanings, sealants, basic restorative care and, when other options are exhausted, extractions. The goal, Fowler said, is to improve overall oral health. Patients who need more extensive care, such as crowns or periodontal or endodontic surgeries, are referred to other dentists in the area. On occasion, the Oral Health Task Force has transported children with severe dental health issues to University of Maryland facilities in Baltimore for care beyond the capabilities of its grant-funded program.
The task force relies on donations of time, talent and supplies to help stretch its grant money as far as possible.
"We need an autoclave and extraction instruments. We do have some, but no longer can just go in the drawer and borrow somebody else's," Fowler said. "We want to ensure as much grant money as possible goes into direct service, so we rely on donated assistance. We do not have state-of-the-art stuff, but it's functioning."
Naomi Watkins, family services coordinator for the Judy Center, credited the Oral Health Task Force with reducing emergency room visits due to dental problems by approximately 15 percent. The task force is now part of the Judy Center Strategic Plan, which requires services including oral health education and screenings for participating children. Watkins said that before the Oral Health Task Force began providing screenings through Judy Center, the Judy Centers would partner with Colgate to bring in a dental health van for screenings and oral health education. Now, Watkins said, children can be screened by the same hygienists they will see at the task force's Lusby office, providing "a familiar face" for children who may be anxious about having unfamiliar procedures done on an already uncomfortable mouth.
Four part-time, volunteer hygienists work with the group's paid dentist, for now; the group hopes to recruit more dentists to join the practice as well as someone who can specialize in dentures. Since 2010, the group also has College of Southern Maryland nursing students helping with dental screenings at Head Start and Judy Center locations.
Beyond the benefit of having a consistent headquarters for an organization, which, Fowler said, had previously been "mostly virtual," the new office's location on a bus route makes it accessible to patients living in much of the county. That increase in convenience has already paid off in making regular preventative dental care a consistent part of clients' lives.
"We even have people coming back in for a six-month cleaning, who hadn't [previously] been to the dentist in five to 10 years," said Nita Thompson, administrative care coordinator for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Fowler said that CMH's KeepWell program is coordinating longitudinal tracking of the program's impact on client health and changes in utilization of the emergency department.
"The beautiful thing I can say — Calvert took the lead in administering the grant, but the collaboration between all organizations has made the success of the program," Fowler said. "It's not a low-income clinic. It's a dental care program."
For information on the Oral Health Task Force and Calvert Community Dental Care, call 410-535-8402.