A critical shortage of brick and mortar dental clinics in certain regions of Arkansas has resulted in more dentists taking their practices on the road. And mobile dentistry is practiced in different ways for different reasons.
Geographic access to routine dental care is a challenge for many Arkansans. That's according to Dr. Lindy Bollen DDS, Director of the Office of Oral Health at the Arkansas Department of Health in Little Rock.
"In the state of Arkansas, because we are a rural state, you find 60 percent or more of dentists distributed in less than 10 counties. As a result, we have areas of the state where you will have fewer numbers of dental providers for the population that’s there," Bollen says.
To reach the other 65 counties, some dentists are going mobile. UP Dentistry, a privately-owned portable dental company based in Bentonville has been in business for a little over a year. The company's licensed dentist and staff bring equipment to patients where they are.
"Our equipment is mobile. The high-speed hand-piece, the suction, everything that we need, including our supplies, is brought inside [along] with a zero-gravity chair. And we set up within just a few minutes right inside of the facility, or home, or office," says Lisa Wolfe, the company's director of business development.
According to Wolfe, UP Dentistry treats all types of patients, but specialize in working with people with dementia disorders.
"A trip to the dentist can be very disruptive to their day," Wolfe says. "There’s the potential for a fall, different things like that. Having us be able to come in, and set up, and take care of residents without [them] ever having to leave the building is such a plus for senior living communities."
UP Dentistry accepts private insurance, but not Medicare or Medicaid.
Arkansas Children’s Hospital, on the other hand, serves the other end of the spectrum: impoverished kids. Children’s Hospital operates four fully-outfitted mobile dentistry vans, which essentially are clinics on wheels. During the school year, dental staff park the mobile vans outside partner schools, chosen partly based on the percentage of children who qualify for free-and-reduced lunch program.
During the school day children come out to the van for cleanings, fillings, or other dental services, free of charge or billed to their parents' insurance. Dr. Lara Udouj, DDS, has been the primary dentist for the Children’s Hospital central Arkansas van for more than four years.
"It has been so rewarding to work for this program," Udouj says. "I've worked with children in a private office and it always came back to what the parents could afford, so the treatment that you provided was dictated by money, and at this program I have never felt that way."
Anna Strong oversees Children's Hospital mobile dental program as part of her role as the executive director of child advocacy and public health.
"Cavities are the number one chronic disease for children," Strong says. "And oral health is a big predictor of longer term physical health, and contributes to poorer physical health if your oral health needs are not taken care of. So our mobile dental vans are really part of helping address the most common chronic disease for children in Arkansas."
Arkansas Mission of Mercy, or ARMOM as it's more commonly known, has a similar mission. The organization is a collection of volunteer dentists, dental care providers, and other oral healthcare assistants who host an annual two-day event to provide free oral health care, most recently at a convention center last April in Springdale. Venues are filled with portable dental equipment to serve hundreds of Arkansans. The event, which rotates to a different region of the state each year has since 2007 provided dental care to over 20,000 Arkansans.
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK, and community partners AETN, and the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. Arkansas Public Media’s series on oral health in Arkansas is funded through a grant from the Delta Dental of Arkansas Foundation, and with the support of its partner stations.
Support for this series on oral health in Arkansas comes from the Delta Dental of Arkansas Foundation, working to increase access to dental care in the state and improve the oral health of all Arkansans.