Nearly 12,000 low-income adults in Spokane County have trouble getting regular dental care. Many end up in hospital emergency departments with problems ranging from minor toothaches to life-threatening infections.
Providence Health Care is launching a new initiative to serve those patients through a partnership with CHAS Health and the Spokane District Dental Society. The partners will raise $5 million to open two new dental clinics, which will be staffed by a new dental residency program in Spokane that will train up to six dentists per year.
The program is modeled after a similar program at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, where emergency room visits for tooth pain dropped by 21 percent over a five-year period after the program started.
When the Swedish program began, many patients with dental problems were cycling through the emergency department, said Dr. Amy Winston, Swedish’s medical director for hospital dentistry.
They’d get some antibiotics, which would knock down the infection, and some painkillers. But without having their underlying dental issue addressed, they’d be back in the emergency room when the infection flared up, she said.
Swedish works with a community-based clinic to get those patients in to see a dentist within 24 hours of their emergency room visit.
Other patients had true dental emergencies, including life-threatening infections where the patients ended up on ventilators, Winston said. In those cases, the dentists were able to provide in-hospital treatment, with other specialists nearby to address other health complications.
Patients who need dental work, and who have other serious issues such as uncontrolled diabetes or cancer, are also seen in the hospital, Winston said.
In Spokane, emergency departments at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center and Providence Holy Family Hospital logged more than 3,600 patient visits for dental problems in 2015.
“We see a lot of people who come into our emergency department with dental issues that have no other access to dental care,” said Joyce Cameron, chief development officer for Providence Health Care Foundation in Eastern Washington.
In the future, many of those patients will be referred to an outpatient dental office within walking distance of Holy Family.
More complicated cases will be referred to an in-hospital clinic at Sacred Heart.
Providence and the other partners anticipate starting the dental residency program in 2018, but the clinics could open earlier, after existing buildings are leased and remodeled for dentistry.
The fundraising effort includes a request for $2 million from the Washington Legislature’s capital budget. The partners also will be applying for state, federal and private grants and corporate donations to raise the rest of the $5 million.
Once the program is up and running, it should be self-sustaining financially, Winston said. Using dental residents, who are already dentists but are getting a year of experience, will help reduce the program costs. CHAS Health, a community health clinic, will be able to provide some reimbursement for patient visits.
Starting the residency program and opening two clinics is an ambitious project, but it has strong buy-in from local dentists and physicians, said Cameron, the foundation officer.
“There’s a lot of passion around this,” she said.
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