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How One Kansas Health Center Weaves Oral Health into Fully Integrated Care

Dr. Mollie Day is integrating dental care into Heartland Community Health Center’s thoughtful approach to overall health.

Dr. Mollie Day provides dental care to a patient at Heartland Community Health Center in Lawrence, Kansas.

Dr. Mollie Day has spent her 17-year career in dentistry serving communities who have a difficult time accessing oral health care. Three years ago she joined Heartland Community Health Center in Lawrence, Kansas — a federally qualified health center (FQHC) that served just over 6,000 patients last year — to help them launch a dentistry practice. Last year, FQHCs, which are federally funded and typically bill patients on a sliding-scale basis, served more than 28 million Americans nationwide. Day hopes she can help Heartland expand the group’s approach that melds behavioral counseling, medical care and even an onsite food pantry far beyond the center’s walls to reach her patients where they are every day.

How does Heartland work to provide more than basic medical and dental services?

We know that people need more than checkups. For people to have proper health, they need proper nutrition. That's why we screen every patient for food insecurity. It’s a simple question that’s asked to new patients on the dental or medical side: “Have you had enough food to eat in the past month?” If they say no, a dental assistant or volunteer takes them to the food pantry that we have onsite, and they are able to pick food items then — and subsequently every month — to help with that food shortage. Because we know how important nutrition is to overall health and that it hits all the buckets: for people to have proper medical, dental and behavioral health, they need proper nutrition.

How are you reaching out to the community to meet people where they are?

We have school-based community care where we’re taking dental into schools. That’s a place where behavioral health goes hand in hand with oral health. You’ll meet a middle-school child who isn’t taking care of their teeth and you say, “Hey I noticed you’re not brushing — is something going on?” and five minutes later they’re in tears talking about their anxiety, having to move in the middle of the night because of uncertain living circumstances and leaving their toothbrush someplace, not being able to get another one. It’s heartbreaking. So the idea there is to refer them to behavioral health services by getting them into our clinic to meet with other members of our staff who will provide comprehensive care. We’re launching a new outreach program called Healthy Futures, which will bring not just dental but services like behavioral and primary care into the community to meet our patients where they are.

Have you found a successful way to engage with these new, often anxious patients who you believe need care beyond school-based oral health?

I have found it’s all about the language. In our clinic, we use phrases like, “My trusted coworker is going to come talk with you. They have really good tips and strategies on how to help you manage how you're feeling.” We don't make it sound like a counselor's coming to talk to you — people can be nervous about that kind of language. In our outreach, the goal is referring a patient to speak to someone in the clinic so we can follow through on care.

What surprises you about your outreach visits in the community?

Going into high schools is interesting for me because it’s up to parents to fill out a consent form, but we'll have kids who come down to see us at the dental clinic who are begging to be seen. They’ll say, “I want to get my teeth cleaned, but no one in my family brushes their teeth.” It’s frustrating. If we weren’t in their school, they’d have no access to care. But we call their parents for approval and explain there’s no cost, and that works. I make sure to tell these kids that it goes beyond tooth-brushing: “You're going to want a job, and a nice smile will help you get where you want to go.” We help people understand good oral health is an important step to having an overall healthy body. That everything is interconnected. 

Read more stories about Preventists changing their communities and learn more about the future of oral health at Preventistry.org.