Mobile Dentistry Helps Fill Important Gaps

May 24, 2017
Ed Rabinowitz

Mobile dentistry isn’t just another ancillary service that can be brought into a practice to supplement revenue. It’s a commitment—but when done right, it can be both a clinically and financially rewarding experience.

Is mobile dentistry the latest way to provide quality dental care to the aging population in America?

America’s population is going gray. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that by 2050, the number of Americans age 65 and older will reach 83.7 million — nearly double the 43.1 million in that category in 2012.

With aging comes a reduced level of mobility, but the need for quality dental care among an aging population remains everpresent. Mobile dentistry is one way the industry is addressing that need.

Wisdom Tooth Mobile Dentistry, a division of CareLink, has been providing dental services to Rhode Island’s aging population for the past nine years.

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CareLink oversees a network of facilities from adult day care and nursing homes to housing and home health. These facilities are required to provide access to dental care, but according to Eric Franklin, director of health services, that requirement wasn’t being met.

Wisdom Tooth Mobile Dentistry was created to fill that gap — but it didn’t necessarily come easy.

STATE APPROVAL

On April 1, 2015, a mobile dental law went into effect in Michigan that required an operator or owner of a mobile dental facility to complete an application and be approved by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The law also required the owner/operator to reapply every three years.

In other words, dentists can’t simply outfit a mobile facility and head out on the road. It may be illegal in your state, and it’s also expensive.

“It’s cost prohibitive to (perform mobile dentistry) prior to being approved by the state,” Franklin says. “Through extensive lobbying, the state opened up the opportunity for providers to bid for this type of service. We had to go through a pretty extensive readiness review.”

And after being approved, Wisdom Tooth Mobile Dentistry was able to capture an enhanced rate for services.

“Ninety percent of what we do is through Medicaid,” Franklin adds. “If we weren’t able to capture that enhanced rate, there’s no way we would be able to provide this service.”

CHANGING THE STIGMA

John E. Reese, III, D.M.D., founder of Dental Access Carolina, L.L.C., also noticed a gap — a need for dental care among economically disadvantaged schoolchildren. He developed a model to provide much needed dental care for these children at their schools in mobile dental clinics by local dentists during school hours.

But, he first had an image hurdle to clear.

“The biggest challenge I had was turf protection from dentists,” Reese says. “A lot of dentists, especially in smaller towns, didn’t understand what we were doing.”

That was compounded by an image tainted by groups of mobile practices that Reese says were doing “hit and run dentistry” where they were billing for services they didn’t provide, or would not provide any proper follow up.

Working closely with the South Carolina Dental Association, South Carolina Board of Dentistry, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Social Services, and school district representatives, among others, Reese sought and received positive feedback for his idea. He launched Dental Access Carolina in January 2001, and nine months later sold his brick and mortar practice to concentrate on the new entity full time.

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A NICHE MARKET?

Franklin explains that, in many respects, mobile dentistry is a work in progress. He says there are just over 80 nursing homes in Rhode Island, and Wisdom Tooth is present in 48 of them. It’s goal is to serve the Rhode Island elder population — a niche market approach other entities have taken.

Apple Tree Dental delivers on-site care to elderly nursing facility residents, disabled adults living in group homes, and low-income children at Head Start centers and schools in parts of Minnesota and California.

Complete Mobile Dentistry, Inc. provides on-site dental readiness exams to military personnel in 19 states and American Samoa. And the Smile Center Dental Group ensures dental care for children in schools, group homes, and residential treatment center in parts of Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.

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For dental practices that might be considering a venture into mobile dentistry, Franklin says the key to success is the effort needs to be collaborative. And there needs to be perspective.

“We went into this for public health,” he says. “We went into this to fill a void. And I feel like that’s what we’ve accomplished.”

Reese echoes those thoughts, adding that educating local dentists on what mobile dentistry is and what it does is critical.

“Dentists as a group have a zero-sum mentality,” Reese says. “They think that if you’ve got something, it means you took something from them. They don’t understand that there’s enough for everybody to go around.”

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