. — Before the Caring Community Dental Clinic held its grand opening Nov. 16, its director, Dr. Virginia Wilson, had already seen 125 patients who needed care.
To be sure, Onslow County needed a dental clinic for underserved and underinsured people. The need was met last year when the local hospital, a nonprofit agency and a handful of dentists in the community came together to make it happen.
The demand for dental care was clear to Onslow Memorial Hospital before it appeared on the radar of Onslow Community Outreach, a nonprofit based in Jacksonville that oversees the dental clinic, in addition to a shelter, soup kitchen, Christmas program and medical clinic.
The hospital "was experiencing a large amount of patients coming through the emergency department with dental pain," said Erin Tallman, senior vice president and patient advocacy officer at the hospital. "In reviewing the data, we determined that most of these patients were uninsured and had minimal access to preventative dental care. This meant that not only were the numbers increasing but the acuity level was as well."
Around the same time, Dr. Wilson, retired from her own private practice, started to find that the patients she was seeing as a volunteer at a community dental clinic in a neighboring county were, like her, making a 90-minute drive from their hometown near Jacksonville.
"I began to be weary of the long commute only to treat patients that lived in the same community I did," she said.
In June 2016, Dr. Wilson had a chance meeting with the Onslow Community Outreach's board director, Don Herring. "The next thing we knew my husband and I were meeting" with Ms. Tallman; Theo McClammy, the founder of Outreach Community Care; the director of the nonprofit's medical clinic; and a local dentist, Dr. Thomas Morgan, who is a trustee the North Carolina Dental Society and the son of another local dentist, Dr. Ken Morgan Sr., whose former dental practice building was up for sale.
In February 2017, Dr. Ken Morgan and his wife, Mary, donated the building, a 3,500-square-foot facility with seven operatories, for this community dental clinic.
"This donation of the building is so needed as our community has not had a 'safety net' clinic for those in pain or in need of basic dental care," said Dr. Thomas Morgan.
Dr. Wilson and her husband, Dr. James Wilson, put in hundreds of hours to ready the building, including donating delivery dental systems, a compressor and reception room tables and overseeing carpentry, plumbing and other work.
"It took me back to 1985 when we were starting our practice from scratch," Dr. Wilson recalled.
In September, before the dental clinic's grand opening, Dr. Wilson began seeing patients — with a focus for now on exams for acute pain. Patients, about 20 per week, get radiographs and, often, extractions. Dr. Wilson said the appointments, made early in the week, get filled quickly. Patients are asked to make a donation toward the clinic if they are able.
"The patients are extremely grateful for care," said Dr. Wilson. "They verbally bless both the dentist and staff almost with every procedure."
Of Onslow County's approximately 180,000 residents, about 16 percent are uninsured, said Mr. McClammy. About 2,000 of those people rely on the nonprofit's medical clinic for their care. He anticipates at least those same 2,000 will seek dental care from the newly opened clinic. Most are working uninsured people who live at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty level. So far, many of the dental patients are referrals from the local emergency department.
Mr. McClammy and Dr. Wilson hope expansion of clinic services can move ahead sooner than later. They are working with the North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners to register as a volunteer clinic so that dentists not licensed in North Carolina may volunteer.
Furthermore, Dr. Wilson said a dental student from East Carolina University Dental School contacted her with interest in volunteering at the clinic, opening up the possibility for other students to volunteer.
The clinic got a boost from the North Carolina Dental Society Foundation on its grand opening day in November with a $25,000 grant. The North Carolina Office of Rural Health also contributed a grant.
For Mr. McClammy, the collaboration and generosity among community members to make the dental clinic happen demonstrates "a good formula to address a critical human need."
For those who want to assist the clinic, Dr. Wilson said donations of small equipment such as curing lights, ultrasonic cleaners, ulstrasonic baths or a monetary gift would be useful.
Monetary donations can be made on the nonprofit's website, at Onslowco.org.
To make equipment donations, contact Dr. Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The ADA Council on Advocacy for Access and Prevention has made the ED Referral initiative within the Action For Dental Health one of its top priorities. To learn more about starting a program in your community or to read about other emergency department referral programs in action, visit ADA.org/Action.