After several years of planning and fundraising, a new community access dental center opened its doors in December 2008, serving people in the Bemidji and Beltrami County area of northwestern Minnesota. This grass-roots, collaborative project has brought together leaders from all sectors of the region who agree that access to oral health care by disadvantaged populations is a public health issue.
The dream was a new clinic, one that will not only address critical access needs, but will also become a dental home for people in need. Named the Mississippi Headwaters Area Dental Health Center, this new organization set out on its collaborative journey. An informal community advisory group spent those months and years devising a vision and mission, clarifying our target audience, benchmarking other clinics to construct a functional business model, finding partnerships, developed cash flows, build awareness among area agencies, elected officials, business owners and more, and of course, much time was spent raising the money.
A number of facilities were toured and negotiated until we were able to settle on a newly-vacated optical clinic that sits near both the areas hospital and clinic campuses in north Bemidji. Naming the clinic also became a challenge—with the legal name of the organization being such a mouthful. Recognizing that the long term goals of the agency may be greater than the operation of this single clinic, we settled on a manageable “Northern Dental Access Center”.
The target patient base for this clinic are people who are enrolled in Minnesota Health Care Program such as Medical Assistance or MinnesotaCare. A cadre of fifteen dentists from around the state provide dental care here, some are volunteers and others are paid contractors. A core staff of dental assistants, hygienists and schedulers are here to welcome families and providing continuity of care.
Bemidji Sunrise Rotary has generously funded a special child-friendly waiting area so that families can feel welcome. Beltrami County Health and Human Services has public health nurses on site providing child and teen screenings/check-ups on site, as well as to provide information and referral for families needing other services. Community Resource Connections has a satellite office here, providing insurance counseling and information and referrals for families who may need other community services.
With a treatment coordinator on staff who can sit down with patients, face to face, and discuss treatment plans and options. This ‘vertical dialog’ (rather than while lying in a dental chair) will help build personal ownership in the treatment plan and help us identify and address any barriers to success.
Overall, the fundamental approach is to provide an atmosphere that is respectful, welcoming and caring. A focus group of potential patients helped us understand that many people we plan to serve are accustomed to being denied access, made to feel like they are judged only on what’s billable--not what they need, or feel rushed through like they are on an assembly line. We hope to slow things down a bit, get to know our patients and really become a dental home for them.
We know that there are thousands of people in pain who will need our help…if we are successful, we will make that experience positive enough that they will return for preventive services and they will learn more about their own power in improving the health of their families. Down the road we’d love to expand to offer specialty dentistry—maybe through visiting pediatric or other specialists, develop mobile prevention programs to get off-site, perhaps look at additional clinic sites, and work to affect regional and state policy to improve the overall state of oral and public health.
It’s a tall order, and for now, there is just enough to get the doors open. It will take additional grant funds and some time to build resources in order for service enhancements to be in place…but with the commitment of so many—we know we will succeed.