A new partnership between Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry and Baylor Health Care System is shifting patients out of the emergency room for dental-related pain and into the care of fourth-year dental students.

On Aug. 18, TAMBCD dental students began seeing patients at the Irving Community Clinic, across the street from Baylor Medical Center at Irving.

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Photo: Irving Healthcare Foundation

Two students rotate through the clinic for a week at a time, providing cleanings, X-rays, extractions and fillings with the help of two dental assistants.

Plans are in the works to add more dental chairs and treatment options, such as endodontics and fixed prosthodontics procedures.

The partnership is part of a plan to cut down on the 1,500 dental-related emergency room visits at the Irving hospital every year. That figure mirrors national numbers from the American Dental Association, which reports that there are 2 million visits every year to hospital emergency rooms for dental pain. Since most hospitals do not have dentists on staff, patients are prescribed painkillers and antibiotics. It’s a temporary fix: 39 percent of these patients make return trips to the emergency room for recurring symptoms.

So far, numbers from the Irving initiative are encouraging.

Dr. Vanessa Williams, clinical assistant professor in public health sciences, supervises TAMBCD students at the Irving clinic. She began seeing patients there in mid-July, and by the end of August, she and students had treated more than 180 individuals. It’s nearly as many as the 250 dental patients seen in all of 2013 at the same location, which began years ago as the all-volunteer Irving Interfaith Clinic.

Because the dental clinic’s hours were previously on a volunteer-only basis, Williams says, many patients would have lengthy wait times between appointments.

“This in turn, would leave them with no other choice but to seek emergency treatment through the ER due to financial constraints,” says Williams. “Many of the patients have expressed their gratitude in having TAMBCD fulfill such a tremendous need.”

02connections-icc-2Cheryl Keith, director of operations with HealthTexas Provider Network, an affiliate of Baylor Health Care System, oversees the Baylor community care clinics and says 2,500 dental patients are anticipated to be seen at the Irving location this year alone.

For several years, HealthTexas has been involved with placing full-time physicians at the clinic, which is also dedicated to patients in need of medical care, most of whom suffer from chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension. Efforts began in early 2014 to expand the dental clinic’s reach beyond a volunteer capacity.

“Sustainability is a big buzz word — being able to sustain this service for this population of patients and having the ability to integrate different services that really affect each other,” Keith says. “Having the dental clinic sitting right inside the medical clinic, and having a physician full time, it’s just a great service. If there’s a medical issue with a patient in a dental suite, we’re able to take care of that, too.”

Thanks to Irving Healthcare Foundation, the primary fundraising organization for the Irving Community Clinic, care provided to uninsured residents in need doesn’t cost taxpayers a dime.

“Baylor employee giving, special events, annual giving memberships and grants are expected to make up most of the $170,000 needed this year to support the needs of the clinic,” says Kim Hanna Hollwedel, major gifts officer at the foundation.

The nonprofit was willing to support the project, Hanna says, because access to dental care ranks among the top needs of indigent Irving residents, alongside access to medical care and programs to battle obesity. Since 2008, the foundation has granted more than $1 million to these causes.

Paul Hoffmann, TAMBCD administrative director for extramural clinics, says the common mission and long-term mindset of all parties involved served as a springboard for the initiative.

“The needs for dental care among the underserved are so dramatic,” says Hoffmann. “We’re looking for partners who recognize that need but who also will help us with sustainability in the long term.

“This is a unique partnership. You have a large hospital system, physician network, health care foundation, community medical clinic and dental school involved in offering comprehensive dental care for the dentally underserved in Irving.”

— Jennifer Fuentes

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