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Dentists Bring Smiles to Underserved Communities

Getting down to business, patients undergo treatment in the massive, portable COMOM dental facility.

Getting down to business, patients undergo treatment in the massive, portable COMOM dental facility.

This October, the Prairie View High School gym in Henderson Colorado will be transformed into a state-of-the-art, ‘pop up’ dental clinic with 125 chairs. During the two-day clinic, patients of all ages will flood through the doors for a health and dental evaluation, and will be provided with cleanings, fillings, root canals and extractions.

The organization responsible for this magnanimous endeavor is Colorado Mission of Mercy (COMOM), a large-scale portable dental clinic held annually in a Colorado community delivering quality dental services, at no cost, to individuals who cannot otherwise afford or access dental care. Nearly 200 volunteer dentists from across the state, along with hundreds of dental hygienists, assistants, lab technicians, and numerous community volunteers, work to improve the oral health of the most vulnerable populations in Colorado; eliminating dental pain, promoting oral health, and creating smiles. Staging this huge weekend clinic is a remarkable feat. Dr. Calvin Utke, president of the Colorado Dental Association, explained that the logistics are intensive: “Beginning on Friday, a multifaceted taskforce comprised of individuals who are knowledgeable in the various dentistry departments prepare the clinic.” Critical factors that enable optimum operation include air pressure, power, and lighting. By Saturday morning, 125 chair units as well as sterilized equipment and supplies are in place and the clinic is ready to open its doors.

An astounding 1,500 patients will be treated during the two-day event with more than $1,000,000 in projected dental services provided. According to COMOM Program Director Dr. Pamela F. Dinkfelt, since its inception in 2007, COMOM has served 9,700 patients and provided $7,200,000 in donated dental care.“Colorado is unique in that donors augment with equipment, supplies and staff above and beyond what the program provides,” says Dr. Utke. “Not every state receives such an outpouring of support, so we have a very committed group of dentistry professionals.” Of note, Colorado Springs consistently has the highest representation of dentistry professionals who participate in the program.

Oral Health and Disease

The impact of poor oral hygiene is far reaching; not only does it increase the risk for severe systemic diseases, but the perpetual link to lower socio economic conditions is well established by such organizations as the Center for Disease Control’s Division of Oral Health. In economically vulnerable communities, dentists run into more medically challenging situations. “Screening and triaging is very ramped up,” says Dr. Utke. “This demographic is more compromised with comorbidity - meaning they have related medical conditions like elevated blood glucose – indicating that the population is not getting monitored for their overall health.”

Data from previous COMOM dental clinics indicate that patients often arrive at the dental clinic in pain that they have been experiencing, on average, for over a year. Dr. Utke sites an example of an individual who came into the clinic with three abscessed teeth, and had visited the emergency room 11 times in the past year. The source of his pain was finally addressed during his COMOM visit.

“Oral health is integral to general health,” Dr. Dinkfelt reiterates. “Oral disease affects the ability to eat, and how a person looks and communicates. It can affect self-esteem and compromise a person’s ability to seek work, particularly in a sluggish economy.” COMOM dentists prepare simplified acrylic partials that may help someone get their foot in the door.

“All procedures are fully performed during the patient’s COMOM visit and should not require follow-up,” says Dr. Utke. “In the rare instance that further care is required, COMOM has a mechanism in place to ensure that patients receive the additional care they need.”  Since regular visits allow a dentist to find early signs of decay, disease, and to treat problems at a more manageable stage, each patient also receives a list of low-cost options to help them pursue future dental care.

Longterm Benefits

The COMOM team strives to educate 90 percent of the patients for a longer-term impact. According to Dr. Dinkfelt, the dentists and hygienists give one-on-one instruction to promote sustained oral health, mitigate future pain, and emphasize the importance of balanced nutrition and preventive dental care. Each patient receives a toothbrush, toothpaste, and floss and is encouraged to continue healthy oral hygiene practices.

“The reward with COMOM is in the direct contact with the community,” says Dr. Utke, who has participated in the program from its inception. “I believe in giving back to maximize potential and provide for the community.” Dr. Utke notes that by his participation, he can better identify where the true needs are and relate what is happening in the trenches to policy makers.

For instance, he says that pediatric dentistry has improved in underserved communities, whereas the adult and elderly populations have long-neglected problems that are more compromised.

Past COMOM clinics have been extremely successful with measurable positive impact on the oral health of the communities they have served. “Often people are inhibited from reaching their potential when they have dental problems, whether from disease, injury, or abuse,” says Dr. Utke. The COMOM team is creating smiles and giving people health and hope for a brighter future.