How One Woman is Transforming Her Community Through Holistic Oral Health Care
This “Preventist” is providing oral health care to veterans, children and the elderly in Colorado’s vulnerable neighborhoods
Michelle Vacha has worked for more than a decade to provide holistic oral health care to Colorado’s low-income populations — a feat that’s required innovation and ingenuity along the way. In 2006, the Colorado Springs-based hygienist founded Community Dental Health, formerly Senior Mobile Dental, to bring dental hygiene care into nursing homes through inventive mobile services.
She’s now expanded her reach by opening full-service clinics in underserved regions of the state, where her team of dentists and denture technicians focus on preventive care for veterans and other vulnerable populations. In the last 18 months, they’ve provided care for nearly 2,000 patients. As a Preventist — or someone who demonstrates Preventistry (DentaQuest’s all-in approach to revolutionize oral health) in practice — Vacha is working to achieve improved access and outcomes in her own community, while affecting change more broadly.
What about your job inspires you to get up in the morning?
Nothing makes me happier than seeing a patient come up to the front desk and mumble, “This is the best dental experience I’ve ever had” through a mouth full of gauze. They’re not even supposed to talk, but they’re so appreciative of the care and the attitude of my team — their faith in dentistry is restored by the work we do. And my whole staff, we see that every day.
How do you work to make sure value is rewarded over volume in your work?
We’ve taken care of a lot of older vets — men who were in World War II, Vietnam and the Korean War. We all just assume they’re getting benefits, but it’s a very small percentage of veterans who actually receive dental benefits through the [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs]. A lot of them got their teeth extracted and never received dentures. I’m seeing men who’ve had no teeth for 20 or 30 years. We give them dentures, and we’re focused on patient care and what their true needs are over the years, not just volume.
How does your team’s holistic approach to patient care have a larger impact on the community?
For a lot of people who do not qualify for Medicaid — and even some who do, but just can’t get into a dental office — their only recourse is to go into the emergency room. But emergency rooms are not equipped to handle dental emergencies, so all they can do is write a prescription. If we’re able to treat them that day, we do. It’s typically more antibiotic care that’s needed, and if we have to prescribe something for the pain, it’s not an opioid. Plus then they’re coming back into the office regularly, so we’re taking care of the problem, not just giving them a prescription and sending them off without a care plan.
Can you tell us about a patient whose story has stuck with you?
We had a female patient, Theresa, who was physically sick and nobody could figure out what was wrong with her. She had gone to the doctor for years and was diagnosed with stomach problems because she couldn’t chew food properly, and she ended up in the emergency room five times. But the whole illness stemmed from her mouth — abscesses and infection that were never addressed. When we got ahold of her and got the disease out of her, that stopped the trips to the ER. My team tries to listen and be proactive to take care of the real issues.
Vacha’s experience can translate to almost anyone — even on a small scale. Do you know someone in a nursing home? Be a Preventist and ask about their oral care. Read more stories about Preventists changing their communities at Preventistry.org.