09:02 AM

Why Housing & Food Security Are Core to This Dental Program’s Mission

Molly Johnson knows improving oral health outcomes stretches far beyond dental exams — that’s why she helped to launch Oregon’s Wellness to Smiles program.

Dental hygienist Rachel Gazeley provides a free dental assessment at a Wellness to Smiles walk-in clinic in Lincoln County, Oregon.

Molly Johnson is working with a team of community partners to improve oral health outcomes in Oregon’s Lincoln County, a region isolated — both geographically and in terms of access to medical care — along the state’s coast. As Director of Medicaid Services for Advantage Dental from DentaQuest, she helped develop Wellness to Smiles, a program that sets up walk-in dental care sites in communities that need them most.

But Johnson’s program goes beyond dental services to drive impact: It’s scaled to include housing and food programming at five community sites — all with the understanding that oral health is holistically connected to the overall well-being of patients. Nearly 1 million people, a quarter of Oregon’s population, is on Medicaid. Johnson, a preventist through and through, is looking forward to seeing the impact on the community from this pilot program, which is on hold due to the pandemic but should start again this summer.

How is Wellness to Smiles different from other walk-in sites for dental care?

There’s a crucial link between oral health and overall health, and you can’t sufficiently address either without also meeting a person's basic needs, such as housing, nutrition and transportation. Safe and affordable housing is fundamental to the success of families becoming self-sufficient, but securing housing is a challenge for many. People also need to achieve and maintain a healthy diet to improve oral health, but many of the areas we’re serving experience what are called food deserts, meaning it’s difficult to buy affordable or nutritious food. We’re trying to make it easy for people most in need to access support. The Wellness to Smiles pilot program aims to address these barriers and improve oral health by bringing all the services under one roof at each of our five program sites throughout Lincoln County.

What’s the motivator for bringing oral care to patients where they live?

If you’re meeting individuals in a community setting where they’re already comfortable, it reduces that anxiety that they might experience in more of a traditional dental environment. For the population we work with, there is sometimes intergenerational fear of going to the dentist, often from grandparents or parents who had an unpleasant experience. Also, many people on the Oregon Health Plan (Oregon’s Medicaid program) are not well-versed in their benefits, and may be concerned about the cost. They think they might walk out with an extensive treatment plan and a bill they’re not able to pay. But meeting them in a community setting allows us to have those conversations — to talk about what their benefits look like and to have a hygienist be their connection, especially to convey their fear if there’s a follow-up required with a dentist.

What advice do you have for communities looking to roll out programs similar to Wellness to Smiles? 

Having more services and resources available at each site definitely makes it more convenient and accessible. Someone can come to us and receive fresh fruits and vegetables, a dental health assessment, preventive services like sealants or fluoride varnish at no cost, and even see a food demonstration in the same visit. It’s almost like we’re putting on mini health fairs with an oral health emphasis. The more partners you can have involved the better, and if those partners are in it for the same reason — to improve the overall health of the community — then the model is scalable and transferable anywhere.

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