ASDA believes giving back to our communities is a key part of the dental student experience and as future dental practitioners. Over the next three weeks, we’re going to explore how dental students are making a significant impact in their local communities. Mark your calendars for ASDA’s upcoming Week of Service, “Renewing our Reach,” Jan. 17-23, 2022, so you can make a difference in your community, too.
During middle school, I participated in my neighborhood’s Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program in the San Francisco Bay Area. The program was designed to encourage younger individuals to take charge of their moral and intellectual growth, while contributing to the well-being of society at the same time. The service projects that my group and I organized each week left a deep impact on me, as I was able to experience the joy in helping those in need while learning to critically analyze and address profound issues afflicting the community. As I grew old enough to mentor my own junior youth group, I noticed a lack of school attendance among families I served due to toothaches and shared use of toothbrushes. This opened my eyes to systemic disparities, such as lack of health insurance and limited oral health education, that underserved neighborhoods face in receiving compassionate, essential dental care.
Realizing the need to address this growing problem, I reached out to the Northern California chapter head of Operation Smile to see what more could be done. Feedback from local hospitals and county health services highlighted the need for increased access to oral health care services, particularly for the 30% of the Contra Costa County’s (CCC) adult population who lack dental insurance. Public health reports disclose that only 98 of the 785 dentists registered in CCC accept Denti-Cal, Medi-Cal’s dental program that provides free or low-cost dental services to eligible children and adults. With limited providers to treat eligible patients, CCC has 9,125 Denti-Cal-eligible patients with only one Denti-Cal service provider, leaving CCC with the highest rate of uninsured individuals in the Bay Area.
With no oral health services available to uninsured adults, I organized a team of predental and dental students through Facebook pages and various social media platforms, and joined forces with Operation Smile to establish Dentists on Wheels, a nonprofit organization that works to increase oral health literacy and access to free, comprehensive dental services in and around Contra Costa County.
We originally planned to use a mobile dental clinic. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, funding for purchasing large-capital equipment such as an RV became less feasible. With shrinking adult Denti-Cal coverage and limited access to emergency dental care during the pandemic, my team and I felt the immediate need to pivot. We teamed up with St. Vincent de Paul, which has been addressing major health disparities in the community through their RotaCare Free Medical Clinic for the last 57 years. Collaborating with them helped us establish our first three-chair clinic in Pittsburg, California.
Realizing that these patients also face various social needs such as food insecurity, housing instability and income assistance, we partnered with 21 local non-profits such as homeless shelters, crisis centers and food donation centers. These partnerships have allowed us to connect our patients with vital resources in their community and provide them with the basic tools necessary to stabilize their lives, thus providing a larger health care and social safety net overall.
In October 2020, we began a phase I clinical trial where we treated patients one day a week via portable dental equipment at the St. Vincent de Paul Family Resource Center in Pittsburg, where a temporary clinic was established. Volunteer dentists and dental assistants conducted exams, oral cancer screenings, X-rays, cleanings and oral hygiene instruction for 100 patients. While we were unable to provide restorative treatment with our portable equipment, patients were referred to our partner offices to complete emergency and specialty services.
To further our reach, construction at St. Vincent de Paul began in January 2021. The goal was to establish a more permanent dental clinic, which includes three operatories, an in-house dental laboratory, sterilization and X-ray units, front desk, storage space and patient waiting area. Construction of this permanent clinic was completed in July 2021. With the clinic’s official grand opening this past September, we then began phase II of the trial, allowing us to accept more patients and provide the much-needed restorative and preventative dental treatment in-house.
Currently, Dentists on Wheels operates with the help of 32 volunteer dentists, five dental student volunteers and 10 predental volunteers devoted to back-end operations such as writing grants. Our goal is to treat 400 patients per year, with an average of three visits per patient to finalize their oral health needs. We hope to continue expanding our reach, particularly to children. We are currently working with a local school district in the neighboring Alameda County to establish the first oral health initiative targeted toward children and their families in the area.
Dentists on Wheels continues to rectify barriers of limited access to oral health care. We provide free preventative and restorative care in addition to student-run workshops to inspire patients to maintain a strong oral hygiene regimen. Being able to help others take ownership of their oral health makes me feel more connected and unified with my community. Aiding patients by increasing access to care, in addition to establishing partnerships that tackle housing instability, income assistance and other barriers to care, can bring a community one step closer to achieving health equity for all. As a dental student and future oral health care professional, I will continue to help build conditions that make great health (and great smiles!) possible for all people.
~Keemia Shariati, Southern California ’23
Join Keemia in participating in ASDA’s Week of Service, “Renewing our Reach,” Jan. 17-23, 2022, to continue serving those in need and building our communities.