When the Southwest Health Clinic began offering dental services last spring, McLinda Gilchrist was one of the first people in line.
Before that, Gilchrist said she couldn’t afford dental care. But now, she has been able to have her teeth cleaned and get some teeth removed.
“I’m proud to be a part of it, proud to have it in my neighborhood. We need it so badly,” said Gilchrist, who is a member of the clinic’s advocacy group board.
“It’s a wonderful thing,” she said. “A lot of people can walk there in the neighborhood.”
People like Gilchrist are who the health clinic seeks to serve through its new dental clinic. It performs extractions, fillings, comprehensive exams, cleanings and other dental services at affordable costs, according to SW Advocacy Group’s website.
Between June and September the dental clinic, which is near the Oaks Mall at 816 SW 64th Terrace, served 784 patients. On Oct, 14, it will hold its grand opening celebration and open house. The celebration will include refreshments, giveaways, tours of the facility and patient testimony.
The clinic is part of the Florida Department of Health.
“The dental part of the clinic was always a vision of ours in terms of providing comprehensive public health services in that neighborhood,” said Paul Myers, Alachua County Health Department administrator.
That vision was accomplished with the help of a $1.85 million grant provided by The United Health Foundation.
In Alachua County, access to dental care has always been part of the health improvement plan, Myers said.
“Many of our citizens who don’t have insurance or don’t have a private dentist really seek their dental care in the emergency room,” he said, “and that is just [an] expensive and really not an effective long-term type of strategy to address dental issues.”
Dr. Frank A. Catalanotto, a UF professor in the Department of Community Dentistry and Behavioral Sciences, knows the problem. In Florida last year, more than 160,000 visits to hospital emergency rooms were for dental problems, he said.
“That’s a lot,” Catalanotto said. “Even right here, [with] Shands in Gainesville where we have a dental school, there were several thousand hospital emergency department visits for totally preventable dental conditions.”
Catalanotto said dental care is essential to overall health care.
Lack of dental treatment means that dental health issues like abscesses or oral cancer can go undetected and untreated, as was the case with 12-year-old Deamonte Driver in 2007. Catalanotto said these issues can be treated if found early on.
“The reality is that oral cancer is, for the most part, devastating because in fact it’s detected too late, and that particularly affects poor people and minorities,” he said. “The incidence and the death rate of oral cancer is very high in minorities, in African-Americans in particular. Most experts think that is due to late diagnosis.”
To prevent late diagnosis, children should start seeing the dentist as soon as a year old, but for those who missed out on dental care in the early years of their life, it’s never too late, Catalanotto said.
While the dental clinic only serves residents of Alachua County, as stipulated by the grant, it’s important to remember that the issue transcends the county, Myers said.
“About 45 million Americans are living in regions with shortages of dental care providers, especially in rural and urban areas,” he said. “That’s just nationwide. You start to boil that down to Alachua County, and you’re talking about tens of thousands of individuals who could benefit from this program.
“I think the studies are pretty evident that dental health plays a big part not just in, obviously, the impact that it has on eating, digestion and the health of your mouth, but really in many other aspects of your physiology, especially in terms of your heart health and your overall health,” Myers said.