Providing Access to Those Deserving Dental

Elisa LlodraFeatured News

From the Summer 2022 Journal of the Colorado Dental Association

Editor’s Note: Deserving Dental was a recipient of the CDA Foundation’s spring 2022 grant program. We are honored to share more about this organization with our members.

Deserving Dental is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that provides free preventative dental care inside Colorado’s homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters, residential substance abuse treatment facilities and nursing homes utilizing pop-up clinics. The organization also provides bedside house calls for patients who are in hospice or can no longer leave their homes due to severe medical conditions such as quadriplegia, stroke, or Parkinson’s Disease.

Jennifer Geiselhofer is the founder and executive director; she has been a hygienist for over 25 years. After volunteering at a local dental Mission of Mercy dental clinic and providing an impromptu dental hygiene house call for an immobile elderly patient, Jennifer recognized the need to establish access to care for a unique sector of Colorado’s underserved population.

Last year, the individual maximum yearly income to qualify and receive Medicaid was just above $17,000. Most of Colorado’s underserved populations are receiving Medicaid, but there are still thousands of individuals in shelters or on social security who are still living below the poverty level and don’t qualify for assistance.

Jennifer spent five years developing this portable dental organization, building relationships and collaborating with other nonprofit organizations such as Catholic Charites, The Salvation Army, and The Denver Rescue Mission. Deserving Dental now provides care inside more than 30 homeless shelters.

Jennifer admits this type of service is physically demanding. Patients who haven’t had dental care in decades present additional strain on a clinician’s body. This is made easier with the support of equipment and supplies from Dentsply Sirona, Ultradent, Pulpdent, GC America, Elevate Oral Care, Vector USA and Darby Dental Supply.

Deserving Dental patients are the most appreciative patients she has ever met. They never complain, question, or resist care. They are full of gratitude, trust and appreciation.

“It is extremely rewarding to make a change in someone’s smile and oral health,” she said. “The best feeling in the world is when the patient asks if they can hug you because they are so grateful for the procedure you provided. It’s all worth it when they walk by the clinic a few weeks later just to say thank you again.

“They are brushing every day and their gums aren’t bleeding anymore! Some patients are proud to share that they got a job or that they went to the dentist for that needed extraction. I love when a new patient comes to me by saying ‘the guy sleeping next to me said you really helped him with his teeth, can you do mine too?’”

All Deserving Dental patients are referred to a dental home for follow-up care. The goal is to give patients the highest quality dental care and education—not only in hygiene, but also in restorative and surgical care. There are no time limits on a patient care session. The private practice dentists who collaborate with Deserving Dental have a great understanding and working relationship with the organization. The handoff is seamless, and the dentists appreciate that the patient has already been cleaned and thoroughly educated on oral health needs.

A minimum of 90 minutes is allotted for each patient’s appointment, which begins with a one-on-one interview style medical history. Patients receive portable dental x-rays, a thorough consultation explaining their x-rays, and screenings for gum disease, cavities and oral cancer. A dental cleaning is performed on the initial visit and is customized for each patient depending on the condition of their oral health, including SRP with local anesthetic. SDF is applied to decay. Glass ionomer fillings or IRM is placed as needed and followed with a fluoride varnish. Deserving Dental providers are proficient at performing oral cancer screenings with head and neck exams due to advanced hands-on training by a local Colorado oral cancer screening consultant. Deserving Dental also collaborates with an incredible head and neck surgeon in Colorado who treats Deserving Dental’s patients regardless of their ability to pay.

There are so many memories made every day in the shelters, but there is one patient who will always be remembered. A man experiencing chronic homelessness came into the shelter clinic.  He had a very long beard and mustache. You couldn’t see his lips or teeth because the hair was so overgrown. It had been 20 years since he had any type of dental care. He said, “because we were set up just a few feet from his cot, he decided, what the heck I’m going to do this.” A full mouth debridement was performed, and his results were spectacular! When the hygienist gave him the mirror after the cleaning, he became emotional. He was extremely happy with what he saw.

Two weeks later Deserving Dental was back at the same homeless shelter. A man walked in and said, “hello, I’m here for my cleaning.” None of the providers in the clinic recognized this man, so they asked for his name to look him up in the dental software. They were shocked to realize that this was the patient from two weeks ago. He had completely shaved off his beard and mustache. He said that he was so proud of the way his teeth looked that he didn’t want to hide behind his overgrown mustache anymore. He was a new man, carrying himself in a confident manner with a newfound self-esteem. Many Deserving Dental patients say that bad teeth and an unclean mouth prevent them from getting better jobs and housing. They immediately feel judged by others because of the way their smile looks.

Deserving Dental is a life enhancing and, often, lifesaving service for Colorado’s most vulnerable populations. Aside from treating periodontal disease and oral hygiene concerns, Deserving Dental recognizes and refers outside the shelter to their many advanced care provider partnerships for signs of skin cancer, oral cancer, hepatitis, high blood pressure, mental health, diabetes, and substance abuse treatment. The high-quality comprehensive dental hygiene sessions offered inside the homeless shelters are often the only healthcare that many in this population will receive. It is accessible care in their comfort zone.

Patients living in homeless shelters and substance abuse treatment facilities find Deserving Dental’s onsite care comforting. Lack of access to care, transportation, and financial means, as well as a fear of being judged, keep unhoused populations from seeking the quality preventative dental care they deserve. By bringing the clinics inside the shelters, Deserving Dental removes all barriers to care. Most shelter residents haven’t had a dental visit in a decade or more. Patients experiencing homelessness say that they don’t know how or where to begin care, especially with financial limitations and lack of insurance. Onsite dental hygiene sessions give the gift of an unembarrassed smile and education to promote better dental hygiene habits that lead to greater opportunities and wellbeing.

Deserving Dental’s house call visits for seniors and disabled Coloradans provide a comfortable and convenient care that both the patient and the caregiver are extremely grateful for. Homebound patients with severe mobility challenges can no longer leave their homes due to limitations of a wheelchair, Hoyer lift, or Sara Steady. Many patients suffering from quadriplegia and on a breathing tube struggle to regulate their body temperature, which makes leaving the home for a traditional dental office visit very uncomfortable. The bumpy ride in a transport van is very painful to atrophied muscles and fragile bones. These patients cannot transfer to a traditional dental office chair. Patients who have lost the use of their hands and arms cannot brush their own teeth and rely on a nurse’s aid to do it for them. Bacterial plaque builds quickly in the mouth and can cause an infection around a breathing tube and in the lungs. Deserving Dental removes barriers to care by providing bedside visits in the patient’s home.

The unique dental hygiene program of Deserving Dental, partnering with the Denver Rescue Mission, The Salvation Army, Catholic Charites, and Step Denver, has been a huge success inside more than 30 homeless shelters. This program allows thousands of patients a year who would normally not seek out dental services, to receive the overdue care they desperately need and deserve.