Local group's waiting list for free dental care to shrink

Volunteer enlists dozens of dentists to treat local uninsured adults

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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The calls for help to the Free Clinic of Southwest Washington have become familiar to Stephen Hendricks.

An uninsured Clark County resident calls the clinic looking for urgent dental care. He has a diseased tooth causing discomfort. The tooth likely needs to be pulled.

The clinic’s response was also familiar.

The clinic has a waiting list of 700 people. It’ll be months before the sufferer can land a spot in the exam room with a dentist.

“I was pretty frustrated with answering phone calls every day from patients in severe pain and telling them their last option before going to the (emergency room) was waiting for five months,” Hendricks said. “We couldn’t provide urgent dental care for people waiting that long.”

So Hendricks, an AmeriCorps volunteer from Indiana, started brainstorming and came up with an idea that would help people in need and shorten the clinic’s wait list.

During the first week of April, which is National Public Health Week, dozens of local dentists have agreed to open the doors to their private practices and treat uninsured adult patients.

Free Clinic Executive Director Barbe West gave Hendricks the green light to pursue the idea in February. The 23-year-old prepared and gave a presentation at a Clark County Dental Society meeting last month. By the end of the meeting, 20 dentists had agreed to participate.

To date, Hendricks has recruited 38 local dentists, each of whom are willing to treat five to 10 patients from the clinic’s waiting list, free of charge. The Free Clinic staff is now screening patients on the list -- dentists are providing only extractions and fillings -- and making arrangements to help get the patients to the offices for their appointments.

Hendricks hopes to recruit at least 12 more dentists, for a total of 50, before the event next month.

“It’s gaining some support and excitement,” he said.

The Free Clinic currently provides half-day dental clinics in an equipped van at the clinic, so space limits the number of people who can be treated, West said. The volunteer dentist at the clinic can typically see about six patients during each clinic. In January, the Free Clinic provided dental care to 120 adults, she said.

The 38 dentists participating in the upcoming event could shorten the clinic’s 700-person wait list by half in just one week.

“This is a story about the community coming together to meet the need of the safety net population,” West said. “We can’t actually meet the need because of our physical capacity here, but we can coordinate the care.”

The community’s support of the Free Clinic has impressed Hendricks, who will complete his 10-month assignment in July and then head to dental school at Indiana University.

“That’s definitely had an impact on me, as someone who’s going to dental school,” he said. “I’m certainly planning on going into public health now with my doctoral degree.”

The clinic can be reached at 360-313-1390.

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health;http://facebook.com/reporterharshman;marissa.harshman@columbian.com.