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It is estimated that 108 million Americans have no dental insurance. (Photographs: kiatipol2426/Shutterstock (left); Lorene Kline/University of Michigan (right))
0 Comments Aug 9, 2017 | News Americas

Dental program offers free exams in exchange for community service

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ANN ARBOR, Mich., USA: The majority of residents and dentists who participated in a Michigan program that provided free dental care in exchange for volunteer work said they had benefited from it and most patients felt that their oral health had improved. The Care Free Pay It Forward program offered adult participants $25 in dental services for every hour of volunteer work they contributed to their local community.

Care Free Pay It Forward was a partnership between Care Free Medical, a nonprofit providing free medical services to low-income residents, and the Central District Dental Society of Michigan. Lorene Kline surveyed participating patients and providers as part of her master’s thesis at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry. Roughly 80 percent of the 27 patients who responded to the survey said they liked the program and would recommend it.

The eligibility requirements were fairly narrow. Pay It Forward was specifically geared toward low-income adults who fell below 250 percent of the poverty level and did not qualify for the social health care program Medicaid. Once enrolled, patients took a 1-hour oral health education class and donated 4 hours of volunteer work, choosing from a list of 80 nonprofits. In her research findings, Kline stated that about 70 percent of the patients were in pain when they entered the program. Specifically, one-third of the participants felt that their teeth and gingivae limited the kinds or amounts of food they ate; 38 percent said that it caused discomfort, worry and concern, and affected their lives in all respects; and 40 percent said that it made them uncomfortable when eating in front of others.

“The program wasn’t designed for major restorative work, such as crowns and bridges. Most patients received preventative cleanings, exams, extractions and simple restorations, although some dentists did choose to provide more extensive work,” Kline said. On average, patients volunteered 33 hours and received more than $1,150 in treatment for a total savings of $43,815. Actual figures varied widely based on services needed, ranging from $195 to $5,056.

Of the dentists, seven of the nine who responded to the survey rated the program favorably on all aspects. Two dentists said they did not find volunteering for the program rewarding and voiced issues with the volunteer activities, and said that the quality of care was not comprehensive enough. Kline stressed that the program was just one tool among many to help fulfil the large, unmet need for low-cost or free dental care, but not panacea.

The study titled, “No-cost dental care in exchange for community service hours: Participating patients’ and dentists’ responses,” was published in the June issue of the Journal of the Michigan Dental Association.

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