Hospitals see value in supporting oral health

CDA Cares is coming to Stockton Oct. 15, 2016, at the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds. Over two days, with the help of hundreds of volunteers plus funding support from organizations, businesses and CDA members, an estimated 2,000 community members will receive pro bono dental services.

Among the financial donors is the not-for-profit organization Dignity Health, the fifth largest health system in the U.S. and the largest hospital provider in the state. Dignity Health, which runs St. Joseph's Medical Center in Stockton, donated $25,000 to the event.

Petra Stanton, director of community health at St. Joseph's, indicated that when evaluating the opportunity to help support CDA Cares Stockton, alignment of missions was an important consideration.

"Certainly, serving the needs of the underserved is an important part of our mission," Stanton said. "Specifically, our mission statement identifies the poor and disenfranchised, or the underserved, and that's the population that gets left out when it comes to dental care."

Hospital systems have been critical supporters of CDA Cares since 2013. Every year, due to the lack of effective and adequately funded government safety net programs, thousands of individuals seek treatment for dental pain and infection in hospital emergency rooms, compounding an already strained system.

According to a CDA Cares' survey of individuals attending prior events for care, 11 percent (1,546) responded that they had visited an ER for dental problems within the past five years, and among those, 35 percent visited the ER two to four times during that period. Additionally, 29 percent of individuals attending the events for help with pain answered that they had been experiencing pain for two to six months, and 24 percent reported being in pain for more than a year.

"As CDA Cares is typically a one-time event in a community, a main purpose it serves is to highlight how extreme the need for dental care is, and that so many people are willing to wait in line to receive that care," Stanton said.

Hospitals also see the connection between dental health and overall health and well-being. Dental disease, for example, has been linked to systemic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes, and is associated with premature births and low birth weights.  

"There's a direct tie between overall health and oral health," said Eric Linville, director of community benefit and outreach at St. Agnes Medical Center in Fresno. St. Agnes is run by the non-for-profit Catholic health system Trinity Health. Linville helped to secure a $20,000 donation for CDA Cares Fresno in October 2015.

"A lot of issues that start out oral can translate into much bigger problems if they aren't tended to, which leads to increased visits to emergency departments for something that may have been prevented in a primary-care oral setting," Linville said. "Taking an upstream preventive approach can reduce the cost on health care systems."

Nearly 26 percent of Fresno County's total population lives in poverty (compared with the state average of 15.94 percent) and Medi-Cal is the health care provider for nearly 50 percent of St. Agnes' service-area population. The force of these numbers partly led to the unanimous vote to support CDA Cares Fresno.

The numbers are similar in San Joaquin County. Recent census data shows 41 percent of the population lives at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Additionally, just under 42 percent of adults in the county have dental insurance.

"We as a hospital care about the health of the entire community, not just issues that present themselves at the hospital, so we do a lot of work in health education and preventive health care," Stanton said. "St. Joseph's isn't the right place for most dental needs. We're able to treat individuals' pain and maybe provide antibiotics for infection, but then we're referring them back to the community for care, which they may not have access to," she added.

Both Stockton and Fresno counties have medical clinics that can provide free or reduced-cost dental services for populations in need: St. Mary's Interfaith Virgil Giavelli Clinic in Stockton, and in Fresno the Holy Cross Center for Women offers the Holy Cross clinic, which is fully subsidized by St. Agnes. 

"We see CDA Cares as a link because people can get follow-up care at St. Mary's," Stanton said, adding, "CDA Cares builds momentum in the community to ask, how do we change systems and recruit more volunteers? What else can we do to build better dental services for underserved populations?"

After a successful Fresno event, Linville asked CDA Cares when the next event would happen in Fresno. "We'd like to be able to support an effort like this every year," Linville remembered saying. The answer he received initially surprised him, but he said he ultimately found the explanation behind it "mindful." CDA Cares was not likely to return to Fresno soon because "you shouldn't become that ongoing provider — you should change policy."

Hosted by the CDA Foundation, CDA Cares is a volunteer dental program that educates the public and policymakers about the importance of good oral health and the need for an adequately funded dental safety net, which includes a well-functioning Denti-Cal program. Volunteers help relieve pain and infection through extractions, fillings, cleanings, root canals, oral health education and a limited number of dentures and temporary partial dentures.

Since 2012, CDA Cares has provided $14.6 million in oral health care services to 17,965 people.

For more information about CDA Cares, visit cdafoundation.org. Register to volunteer at CDA Cares Stockton at cdafoundation.org/stockton.

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Soon after the last classes let out at the University of California, San Francisco School of Dentistry on Friday, Oct. 14, 76 dental school students will board a bus for the 90-minute ride to Stockton, for the CDA Cares event.