“Oral health is an important precursor to physical and mental health. Without proper care and maintenance, poor oral health can lead to a number of preventable diseases and ailments that can be costly to treat. Further, those struggling with poor dental health, including broken and decayed teeth, tend to experience shame and embarrassment of their condition. It’s common for folks in need of dental care to hide their smiles and even avoid social interaction, leading to isolation and depression,” says Melanie Jones, Executive Director at Blue Ridge Free Dental Clinic.
Despite the intrinsic link between oral health and other health outcomes there are multiple barriers for folks to access dental care, especially for low-income families living in rural areas. “Amidst an acute shortage of dental care providers, many rural residents lack dental coverage and cannot pay the out-of-pocket expenses, which can be more than three times higher than out-of-pocket expenses for medical care. This causes many people to delay seeking necessary care until their condition becomes an emergency,” says Melanie. In WNC, the number of emergency department visits for dental care is higher than the state rate and more than three times the national rate. Though emergency departments and primary care physicians can and do respond to dental emergencies, they tend to have limited resources for proper treatment as compared to a specialized oral and dental health facility.
Blue Ridge Free Dental Clinic (BRFDC) exists to fill the gap in rural care by delivering high-quality emergency, restorative, and preventative dental services to those in Jackson, Macon, Swain, Haywood, and Transylvania counties who otherwise could not afford it. Since 2005, BRFDC has performed over 68,000 procedures over more than 20,000 patient visits, with the value of free care provided exceeding $10 million. They also provide outreach and education in schools and throughout the community to address disparities in oral health literacy. BRFDC receives patients referred to their clinic by community partners including Vecinos, Blue Ridge Health, Veterans Affairs, SAFE of Transylvania County, Community Care Clinic and more.
With a grant from Dogwood, BRFDC succeeded in surpassing nearly every goal they set for increasing access to dental care in WNC between 2021 and 2022. They received over 1,400 patient visits and performed 1,390 emergency procedures, 1,662 restorative procedures and 423 preventative procedures. Regarding preventative procedures, that figure represents the highest number of such procedures performed in one year since BRFDC’s inception. In partnership with Vecinos and the International Friendship Center, BRFDC provided 218 members of the Hispanic and Latino community with education, clinical procedures and outreach materials. Through seven community events, they reached an estimated 5,000 community members, and 711 students in Jackson and Macon counties received dental health education, screenings, and fluoride varnish treatments.
Patients come to the clinic from a diverse array of backgrounds and experiences, some of which may complicate the logistics of their treatment. “One patient revealed a history of multiple occurrences of cancer that were treated with radiation, leaving the patient vulnerable to infections,” Melanie explains. “The patient’s oncologist recommended a treatment that would make the healing process safer, however this specialized treatment was far too expensive for the patient. BRFDC was able to recommend an alternative treatment which would completely restore the patient’s oral health and spare him from the enormous expense of the oncologist’s recommended treatment.”
The gratitude and enthusiasm of their patients is perhaps the most compelling evidence of BRFDC’s impact. Testimonials from patients and community partners reveal how important and valued the clinic is for the services they provide.