12:55 PM

Missions of Mercy: Oral Health Improvement in Motion

Guest post by Marcia Brand, Ph.D., senior advisor for national policy and programs, DentaQuest Foundation, and executive director, National Interprofessional Initiative on Oral Health

Are you familiar with Missions of Mercy?

Missions of Mercy – sometimes also called “MOMs” – provide dental services, including cleanings, fillings, oral surgery, x-rays and dentures, to people in underserved communities across the country. These services are provided free of charge by dentists and hygienists who donate their time as volunteers. By bringing free dental screenings and care to those who need it most, these missions are a crucial, hands-on way to improve the oral health of all.

I recently volunteered as a dental assistant at the Wise County Mission of Mercy in Virginia. Pat Finnerty, another senior advisor to the DentaQuest Foundation, volunteered as well, managing patient flow in the triage tent.

Southwest Virginia is an area where much of the population doesn’t have access to regular dental care and services. Would you believe that more than 47 percent of the total population of Virginia doesn’t have dental insurance? I hope this helps drive home the importance of these events.

We don't often realize the powerful impact that poor oral health has on the lives of those who cannot access oral health care. I recall one young woman, perhaps 30, who came through the triage tent at the Wise MOM. After examining her mouth, the dentist gently told her that her best option was going to be to have all of her top teeth in the front extracted. There were multiple infections and they could not be saved. He had to step awayand she began to weep. I asked her if she was afraid and she said, "No, they really do hurt me, but I can't get them pulled. I'm a bartender. If I lose my front teeth, I'll lose my job." What a terrible choice she had to make remain in pain, with multiple infectionsor lose her job. Fortunately, we were able to make arrangements for her to have her teeth extracted and get a partial denturebefore her next shift. Stories like these continue to indicate to me that we must improve access to affordable dental care for all.

The DentaQuest Foundation has participated in the Wise MOM project for 11 years. Since its start in 2000, this particular MOM has brought $15.3 million in free dental care to 19,060 patients – what an incredible impact.

This year, we partnered with the Virginia Dental Association, Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry and Dental Hygiene, the Health Wagon, Remote Area Medical, Virginia Health Care Foundation and other sponsors to fund the Wise County event. Over the three days, more than 1,000 patients passed through the triage tent, resulting in a total of 1,181 exams, 177 cleanings, 1,082 x-rays, 1,569 fillings and 3,527 extractions.

For many people, MOM events are the only time all year that they are able to get care. With 69 localities throughout Virginia lacking a dental safety net provider, the MOM events are a critical stop gap that reach more than 4,000 residents annually.

While MOMs and other similar events provide dental services to people in desperate need of oral care, they also highlight the demand for an increase in access to quality, affordable care. That is why it is the DentaQuest Foundation’s goal, by 2020, to address this unacceptable gap head on. As a part of the Oral Health 2020 goals, we hope to have at least 30 states with a comprehensive Medicaid adult dental benefit and a comprehensive adult dental benefit under Medicare. Will you join us and put oral health improvement in motion?