North Side resident Diamond Carter was happy to be going to the dentist last week even on a bitterly cold day with no ride to the South Side dental clinic. Carter is in the process of receiving a full dental cleaning and restoration. She is determined to do all she can to take care of her health and that of her first baby, due to arrive in about a month.
“I know I needed to come to the dentist and they were offering it,” Carter said. “Anything they offer that will help me and my baby in the long run, I was going to take.”
Carter is one of approximately 200 low-income pregnant women who are receiving free dental care through a Medical College of Wisconsin Healthier Wisconsin Partnership Program grant for the first phase of a research study about oral health and birth outcomes. The two-year $200,000 research grant was awarded to Columbia St. Mary’s for care at its dental clinic, at 1730 S. 13th St. The free prenatal dental care research program began in January 2013.
Although a later phase of the research may investigate the impact of maternal oral care on the overall health of mothers and babies, this first phase was designed to determine how such a free prenatal dental care program would work, according to Clinic Manager Elizabeth Nelson. How do you deliver prenatal dental care to women? Can such a program be financially sustainable? How do expectant mothers value the program? Will they come? These are some of the questions the research sought to answer, Nelson said.
The study involves “individualized tracking using a pre- and post-test of the women’s knowledge about the importance of oral health care,” Nelson added.
“Now we’ve figured out how to do it and we’re doing it well and we’re finding that it’s really positive for everybody involved,” she added.
In the first year, the Seton Dental Clinic has taken referrals from the obstetrics and gynecology clinic at Prospect Medical Commons, 2311 N. Prospect Ave.; Columbia St. Mary’s Family Health Center, 1121 E. North Ave.; and the Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers, 1032 S. Cesar E. Chavez Dr. Altogether about 660 women have been referred, according to Despina Mehail, Seton’s oral health advocate.
Seton has already met the 150-patient requirement for the research project and it has the capacity to treat more patients, according to Nelson. So it is going to begin accepting referrals from several smaller health care programs that treat pregnant women including the City of Milwaukee Health Department’s Empowering Families of Milwaukee, Guadalupe Early Head Start and Columbia St. Mary’s Blanket of Love Program, a partnership with Ebenezer Church of God in Christ, 3132 N. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr.
The research partners involved in this grant, the Medical College of Wisconsin, Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital and three referring clinics, may decide to apply for a second grant for the next phase of research but whether they do or not, Nelson said Columbia St. Mary’s will try to continue free prenatal dental care for as many women as it can treat.
Lack of adequate dental care is among the most serious health care problems for low-income urban residents, according to Bill Solberg, Columbia St. Mary’s director of community services.
Although BadgerCare (Medicaid) covers dental care, in theory, the reality is that very few dentists in Wisconsin and elsewhere can or will provide services for the low rate that BadgerCare will pay them.
The Seton Clinic has its roots in the Madre Angela Dental Clinic, which was founded in 1999 by a partnership of health care providers to address the high volume of patients going to hospital emergency rooms with oral pain, Nelson explained. “The initial intent for this clinic was for urgent care,” she said.
For a variety of reasons, the other partners fell away over time and in 2009 Columbia St. Mary’s built the new, state-the-art Seton Clinic. The Seton Clinic has 11 operatories, or dental exam/treatment rooms, a full-time staff dentist and five or six part-time volunteer dentists, Solberg said. Urgent care services are still available to anyone who needs them, though they do not include restorative care and usually consist of tooth extractions, he added.
Columbia St. Mary’s provides dental care services to low-income residents whether or not they have insurance.
Since she started treatment in October, Carter has had her teeth cleaned and one cavity filled. She will return two more times to have her remaining eight cavities treated in the coming weeks. And on very cold days when she doesn’t have transportation, the program can provide her with taxi fare.
“I know everything’s going to be wonderful after it’s all done,” Carter said.