Would oral hygiene be a priority when you have to figure out where to sleep that night? What would happen if you had a toothache? University of Washington’s dental school is right in the middle of a notoriously large homeless youth population. During a one night count in January of this year 779 teens in King County were homeless or unstably housed, and it is estimated that up to 1,000 are homeless on any given night.
In 2002, a second year dental student took note of these homeless teens. Donald Chi, who is now a pediatric dentist and public health researcher, talked to teenagers near UW about where they went for dental care. He found that most either did it themselves or self medicated with street drugs to ease dental pain. Dr. Chi was inspired to create change in this population and took action with the three core functions of public health: assessment, policy development and assurance.
Assessing the problem was easy: lack of dental care for homeless youth. The resources and policy development took longer to find. It wasn’t feasible to build a clinic from scratch – he needed to find an existing clinic with available space. He also needed to find a way to pay for dental materials and find dentists to oversee the students. Dr. Chi connected with a dentist from a nearby community dental clinic, Neighborcare, who offered their unused space in the evenings. This was a perfect arrangement since Neighborcare already provided free medical and behavioral services for youth in the evenings. Dr. Chi initially received an ADA grant to help with funding, but Neighborcare has since donated their supplies and staff. The 45th Street homeless youth clinic opened in October 2005 for bimonthly evening services.
The final function of public health, assurance, was met with thorough screening paperwork and clinic orientation for volunteers. This ensured consistent care and quality. The clinic is staffed by 8-10 volunteers per evening including one Neighborcare dentist and assistant, and one UW attending dentist. The clinic has four operatories and works on a walk-in basis. The patients range from 14-25 years of age and procedures include emergency exams, cleanings, fillings, extractions and some endodontics. Clinic runs from 6 p.m. -9 p.m. On a typical evening we treat 4-6 patients. The 45th Street Clinic has operated for 9 years and has seen more than 300 patients.
I started working at the 45th Street Clinic when I was in my second year. At that point I hadn’t had any interaction with patients and I saw it as a volunteer outlet. I have since come to appreciate treating teenagers, an age group that we rarely get experience with at the dental school or pediatric center. And I like being able to provide education and preventative care before they have destroyed their teeth with substances, as many adults that we see are apt to do. What started as a perfunctory volunteer opportunity has grown into something I genuinely enjoy and am proud of. I am thankful to Dr. Chi’s early work and am excited to see how this clinic will grow with each new group of dental students.
~Brigitte Woods, University of Washington ’15