Mobile Dental Vans and Volunteers Make a Difference

Oral health is very important in overall health and wellness, but many local seniors have difficulty accessing dental health services. Left untreated, dental issues progress to dental disease. Many people without dental coverage turn to emergency rooms with cases that could be treated more effectively in a dental office.

As an Aging and Disability Services (ADS) planner, I work on a variety of health care objectives in the Area Plan on Aging for Seattle-King County. One of our objectives is to provide dental clinics to low-income seniors at various locations around the county. ADS received grant funds to provide dental services to low-income seniors. We wanted to ensure that those most in need received the needed services.

In the past year, I've made a number of community presentations to senior and low-income housing staff. We've talked about ways to collaborate so that dental clinics could be offered at housing sites to low-income seniors. Their interest and enthusiasm was wonderful.

I also contacted Medical Teams International (MTI), which offers free- or low-cost dental services to low-income patients who lack dental insurance and any realistic way to pay for dental treatment.

ADS and MTI met with staff from housing groups in Seattle/King County to determine the need and to select specific building sites. Though finding volunteer dentists was challenging in the summer months, MTI was able to offer dental clinics at two Seattle Housing Assistance Group (SHAG) buildings—Tri-Court (Kent) and Spencer Court (Renton).

ADS received positive feedback—the two mobile dental clinics were a huge success. SHAG staff reported that they gained new insight into the dental needs of their residents. Here are clinic highlights:

  • The clinics were advertised in three SHAG communities (Tri-Court, Spencer Court and Cedar River).
  • 54 residents were screened for 16 confirmed appointments, with four on the waiting list. Priority was given to the most urgent needs—pain, inability to eat, and bleeding. Staff reported that this was a very difficult screening process since there were many in need.
  • The needs presented by the residents included denture alignment, extractions, dentures, teeth cleaning, possible fillings, and dental exam/consultation.
  • At Tri-Court, 12 residents were served—mainly extractions provided at a value of $3,282 of total services.
  • At Spencer Court, 14 residents were treated—mainly extractions provided at a $3,578 value of total services.
  • The average annual income among residents of the two buildings is $18,500.
  • SHAG staff provided resource information to residents who did not receive an appointment with information about Renton Technical College's dental clinic and the Lake Washington Institute of Technology's dental clinic.

MTI mobile vans are fully equipped with dental chairs and supplies. They are staffed by licensed dentists and sometimes dental hygienists, all of whom volunteer their time.

Though I wish we could have offered additional dental clinics to other housing buildings, I'm grateful we were able to offer clinics at two SHAG facilities. I know it made a difference.

Continued funding for these important programs is needed. Those who are able may wish to consider offering financial support. Dentists and dental hygienists may wish to consider volunteering time.

I want to thank the housing groups who met to talk about possible dental clinics and community collaboration. Bellwether Housing, Renton Housing Authority, and SHAG have amazing resident services staff who took time out of their busy schedules to discuss how to best provide this important service. Clearly they are dedicated to meeting the needs of their residents.

Also, thank you to Washington Mobile Dental program manager Ben Vendelin, clinic coordinator Corbin Walker, and clinic manager Ellen Broyles, and all the volunteer dentists and dental hygienists at Medical Teams International. You make a huge difference in the lives of the patients you serve.

Contributor Mary Pat O'Leary, RN is a planner at Aging and Disability Services, the Area Agency on Aging for Seattle-King County. She was instrumental in developing and distributing oral health kits to Aging and Disability Services long-term care case management clients (see Give the Gift of Oral Health in AgeWise King County, December 2012) and developing an Oral Health Self-Management Plan and other resources available at