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Program helps people navigate dental health

by: ELLEN SPITALERI  - Alyssa Garner, an expanded practice dental hygienist from Pacific University, cleans the teeth of a patient at a free clinic held at Hillside Manor in Milwaukie.When she wrote the grant to start a program called Oral Health Navigation, Elena Strahm knew there was a need for dental hygiene assistance for low-income adults in Clackamas County, but she didn’t realize how much need until she put the program in place this fall.

“We get 50 calls a day from people; we are barely touching the surface of people who need care,” said Strahm, the program manager for the oral health program, which is administered by Northwest Family Services in Milwaukie.

Now that the program is up and running, Strahm and co-worker Jamie Christianson are asking for the community’s help.

“We need more volunteers; we need local dentists or dental assistants. We need people who want to volunteer in community health or who are retired nurses or dental hygienists,” she said, adding that donations of toothpaste, toothbrushes and floss would also be much appreciated.

“When you are a mobile program, you have nothing. We need to get community support, and donations could stretch our budget,” Christianson added.

Oral health program

Strahm wrote the grant after several conversations with Clackamas County social services organizations about why adults were without adequate access to dental care in the county.

She received the one-year, $100,000 grant from United Way of Columbia-Willamette in July, and said the money is used to rent dental equipment and pay hygienists.

The program provides screening for low-income adults with no dental insurance who are Clackamas County residents. As part of the screening process, “We ask patients about their medical history and ask them about medications they are taking and about their blood pressure,” Christianson said.

“We need to know what is going on in their mouths, before we sit them in a dentist’s chair,” Strahm added.

Once they’ve been screened, patients may then make appointments for free preventive dental care, mostly cleanings, at clinics held three times a month.

“We bring the services to the people at various housing locations and area churches,” Strahm said.

Free emergency dental services are offered through Medical Teams International, which brings a van staffed by Oregon Health and Science University dental students and adjunct staff to the county once a month, she said.

Everyone also gets a free dental hygiene kit, and if there are children in the family, they get kits with toothpaste, a toothbrush and floss as well.

The trend right now is to teach young children about good dental habits, but “if mom and dad don’t know about dental hygiene, they can’t pass it along to their kids, especially if they are not enforcing it at home,” Strahm said.

Navigating the system

by: ELLEN SPITALERI  -  Jamie Christianson, left, the oral health navigator for Northwest Family Services in Milwaukie, walks patient Arnold Rodacker through a medical history, while dental hygienist Alyssa Garner looks on.The program is called Oral Health Navigation, because Strahm and Christianson believe that there are barriers keeping a segment of the population from receiving dental care, and they want to help those folks navigate their way through the system and get help.

Northwest Family Services also has a grant to enroll people in the Oregon Health Plan, and “we are working to connect people with social services. We are looking at the person as a whole person, and oral health affects your overall health,” Strahm said.

The goal of the program is to identify the barriers that are keeping people from accessing care.

“Is it transportation? A language barrier? Lack of money? There is a huge immigrant population that can’t get insurance, but there is a ton of Anglo people whose need is just as much. We are trying to figure this all out,” Strahm said.

Although she knows when people are in crisis, perhaps homeless or hungry, dental care goes to the bottom of the list, but she still wants to know why people are not brushing their teeth at home.

“Almost all oral issues are preventable,” she added.

Research and data

Strahm is looking at the program as a research project, and wants to collect data that everyone can use.

Other dental hygiene programs exist in the state, but she would like to see them all using the same screening forms, “so we can all deliver the same community health care that works.”

She is hoping to survey more than 400 patients about their dental-care habits, during the year, because she would like the program to be replicated.

“We need to be able to share information, and focus on this population of people. We want to push the county and state to have more low-cost dental clinics,” Strahm said.

She plans to reapply for the United Way grant next year, but noted that she knows she will need more than $100,000.

“We need to make changes to make the program better, so we can increase the number of people we reach, and we need to hire another part-time employee who speaks Spanish. Our goal is to grow our network of dentists and dental professionals in our community,” Strahm said.

She added that Oral Health Navigation is not looking to take the place of a dental office, but is instead set up to help a particular population that will probably do not have dental insurance or a regular dentist.

Christianson said she was hired to help administer the grant for the program, because of her experience being a dental case manager, and for her skill set in being a liaison between a nonprofit organization and the people it served.

She is pleased to be a part of Oral Health Navigation, she said, adding, “This free program is huge, and people are really grateful for the care they receive.”

Oral Health Navigation Program

Through a grant from United Way of Columbia-Willamette, Northwest Family Services is offering free dental services. Clackamas County residents with no dental insurance, who meet federal poverty level income requirements, may sign up for screenings for a free teeth-cleaning appointment. They may also qualify for free emergency dental care.

For more information, contact Jamie Christianson, Oral Health Navigator-Northwest Family Services, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or by phone at 503-546-6377 or 503-278-3574.

Dental hygiene supplies, like toothbrushes, toothpaste or dental floss, are urgently needed to keep this program afloat. Drop off new items at Northwest Family Services, at 6200 S.E. King Road, Milwaukie.

Northwest Family Services is a nonprofit, non-sectarian corporation equipping people with vital skills for a lifetime. For more information, visit nwfs.org.




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