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Filling the Gaps in Oral Health Care: District hygienist helps homeless residents of Valdosta with dental health needs

December 13, 2013

Originally published Aug. 26, 2013

When Cumi Fillion, dental hygienist in the South Health District, first heard about a group of homeless people living under a bridge in downtown Valdosta, she thought of a need that most wouldn't think of: their dental health. 

She met one of the men at the Lowndes County Health Department one day while passing out toothbrushes and dental floss to patients.

"Once we started talking about their living conditions, it just broke my heart," Fillion said. "So I started going under the bridge to try and help all of the men with their dental needs."

One of the men, Charles Smith, was in such pain from dental problems that he extracted one of his own teeth to try to eliminate the problem. Fillion told him about a dental clinic in Atlanta that would extract his lower teeth and make a plate for the top and bottom. But Smith said he had no way to travel the more than 200 miles to Atlanta.

Judy Greenlea Taylor, D.D.S., a dentist in private practice and a member of the Georgia Board of Public Health, said Smith's problem is just one of many barriers that homeless men and women face when it comes to accessing dental care.

"Among all vulnerable populations, the homeless population probably has the least access to oral health care," Taylor said. "That's especially true for these populations in certain areas. There may be one dentist for all the residents in a 50-mile radius."

Access to dental care for vulnerable populations is a complex problem with few easy solutions. Most low-income adults and their children are eligible for dental services through government-funded programs like Medicaid, but finding oral health care providers who participate in those programs can be challenging.

Many organizations offer charitable dental care for Georgians with little or no health insurance. One of these groups, the Georgia Dental Association, hosted its second Georgia Mission of Mercy dental clinic in June; volunteer providers performed cleanings, root canals, extractions and other dental services for more than 1,600 patients.

But it's often difficult for these organizations to notify people where and when they can go to receive this help.

"If a person doesn't have Internet access or if they don't regularly go to their health department, how can they find out about these events?" Taylor said.

Despite these barriers to dental care access, many of Georgia's dentists and public health professionals work together to reach underserved populations. Public health hygienists like Fillion visit schoolchildren to educate them on taking care of their teeth. Public health staff also work with children and adults to screen for dental problems and refer those who need help to dentists.

Taylor said opening oral health care to a wider population will mean increasing resources for public health facilities to expand their oral health services, in addition to recruiting more providers and volunteers to work with health districts so they can reach underserved populations.

"It's so important that we have people like Cumi who can reach out to these populations who need our help the most," Taylor said.

Fillion still makes visits to the men, always carrying toothbrushes and floss for each of them, along with Sensodyne toothpaste to help with sensitivity issues due to the cold weather. It's not a cure-all for these men, Fillion said, but she hopes it helps in some small way.

"These men were so appreciative of the limited help I was able to give them," Fillion said. "I explained to them that they really need to keep their mouths as clean as possible and to go to the emergency room if they have a toothache to get an antibiotic. This is so important in keeping the infection down."

Fillion said she appreciates the chance to work with people who really need her help.

"I am going to continue to work with these men to help in any way I can. I just wish there was more I could do," Fillion said.

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