Updated on Feb. 18 at 12 P.M. EST
Three-year-old Anisa saw a dentist for the first time in her life on Monday, and considering how difficult it is for homeless people to get such care, she’s fortunate she didn’t have to wait any longer.
According to a 2010 National Institutes of Health report, 41 percent of homeless people surveyed said they lacked dental care. They face such overwhelming obstacles in this specific area of health because they typically don’t have insurance, or dentists say they can’t afford to treat them, Slate reported last month.
But some students in Seattle are bridging that gap and say they’re getting the kind of hands-on education no amount of tuition dollars would grant them as a result.
A group of students from the University of Washington’s School of Dentistry (UW) volunteered on their day off on Monday at Mary’s Place, an organization that offers food, shelter and other services to homeless women and children. The dental students examined the mothers’ and children’s teeth, and were joined by nursing and medical students who also offered up their expertise for a program dubbed the "Teeth and Toes Clinic," KOMO News reported.
Some of the 80 mothers and children who were served that day have Medicaid, but many of them “fall through the cracks,” Marty Hartman, Mary’s Place executive director, told HuffPost.
Dental services have only recently become available as part of Medicaid, she said, and many dentists are unwilling to see patients who are on that plan because of the low reimbursement rate. Dentists who are open to seeing Medicaid patients often have extensive wait lists.
"The students showed them that they matter and they’re not forgotten," Hartman said.
The dental students scoured for cavities and infections -- minor issues that could easily evolve into more serious conditions. Twelve kids were sent to a clinic after their checkups for further evaluation.
The program was completely student run, Hartman said. The only challenge was getting professors to help oversee the students' work.
Homeless people are at a heightened risk for decay and tooth loss, among other dental issues. Medicaid is notoriously challenging for homeless people to obtain, and when they do, the plan is limited when it comes to covering dental health. While Medicaid covers services for all child enrollees, and most states cover emergency care for adults, less than half of the states provide comprehensive dental care for adults.
The students’ work on Monday wasn’t just a one-time offer.
UW students also volunteer with the NeighborCare Health’s 45th Street Clinic, a primary-care clinic that serves homeless youth, among other low-income populations.
The program was founded in 2005 by a then-student who is now a pediatric dentist and UW faculty member.
The students tend to the patients, and two full-fledged dentists supervise. In addition to offering their services, the students also raise funds for clinical operations and supplies.
The volunteers say they enjoy giving back, and appreciate the added bonus of learning about conditions they wouldn’t otherwise get to see at this stage of their training.
"It's definitely giving more experience learning and practicing the types of things that we just only learn in the classroom," second-year dental student Andrew Johns told KOMO News.