The date is October 19, 1998, and FirstHealth Dental Care in Southern Pines had just opened its doors. Imagine seeing child after child with tears streaming down their swollen cheeks, in pain because of abscessed teeth.
Twenty years ago, that was the scene daily for the majority of little patients that the staff cared for in the then-new FirstHealth Dental Care center in Southern Pines. Today, their patients are quite different.
“When we opened the first center, we saw kids with a lot of dental needs because of what I call ‘pent up care.’ In other words, kids had been in pain and gone without dental care for so long because there was not readily available access to care for low-income children, “ recalls Sharon Nicholson Harrell, DDS, MPH, FAGD, director of FirstHealth Dental Care. “It was heartbreaking.”
FirstHealth Dental Care’s focus then and now is on caring for children from birth to age 21 who receive Medicaid, Health Choice or are uninsured and qualify by income level. They provide much needed dental care and, more and more, they can focus on preventive care.
“When we started, seven out of every 10 of our patients had not seen a dentist in a year – or ever, in some cases,” says Dr. Harrell. “Today, more than half of our patient visits are for preventive or diagnostic care.”
The outlook today is much brighter for low-income children FirstHealth Dental Care serves in Moore, Montgomery and Hoke counties. In total, an impressive 28,000 children have benefited from this dedicated team in 20 years.
The opening of the first dental center in Southern Pines in 1998 was followed by the opening of the second dental center in Troy in January 1999, and the opening of the third center in Raeford in October 1999.
Important funding partners like The Foundation of FirstHealth through community contributions have helped the dental centers sustain their 20 year history.
“Because Medicaid reimbursements for dental care are much less than private dental insurers, outside funding assistance are of growing importance to maintain sustainability of the clinics, “adds Dr. Harrell.
FirstHealth Community Health Services has been instrumental in securing that outside funding assistance. Twenty years ago, they wrote and received large grants from both the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust and The Duke Endowment to cover the capital costs of establishing all three centers. Approximately 20 years later, again with the assistance of FirstHealth Community Health Services, The Duke Endowment awarded a generous construction grant allowing the Troy office to relocate to the campuses of two middle schools in Montgomery County. This move, which occurred in the winter of 2017, makes care for children especially convenient.
The service employs 20 people full-time and 25 part-time employees across the four different centers. Since 70 percent of the staff split their time between one or more centers, there is continuity of care among the centers. The Southern Pines office provides early morning appointments, and both the Southern Pines and Raeford offices offer Saturday hours to make it easier for parents to get their children to appointments.
The ways that oral health impacts overall health are many; poor oral health has been linked to increased risks for stroke, heart disease and pre-term labor. Promoting good oral health at a young age is crucial to good overall health as an adult.
FirstHealth Dental Care has worked to expand their reach and relationships with area medical providers, especially pediatrician offices. Over these past two decades, staff has built strong ties with area providers.
“They will refer patients to us for care,” says Dr. Harrell. “And, in turn, we refer patients to their care when we see dental signs of health issues.”
For example, a dentist is likely to notice very early signs of GERD, or acid reflux, by signs of acid erosion on the teeth, even before a parent does. If not treated, it can lead to esophageal cancer. So this early attention can impact children for life.
Another exciting win for the children in the region is the success of a program to provide fluoride varnish to toddlers to help reduce cavities.
“We provide this service along with local pediatricians and family physicians,” she says.
This effort has shown to reduce cavities by 40 percent, compared to children who do not have this treatment.
Further, with the help of staff, a significantly greater number of people in the region have successfully enrolled in Medicaid or Health Choice health coverage, which gives them more access to health care of all types.
“About 72 percent had Medicaid or Health Choice coverage when we began in 1998,” Dr. Harrell says. “Today, 97 percent have it.”
“Despite the fact that a large percentage of our patients have Medicaid insurance, Medicaid reimbursement has not gone up since 2009. But we’re still providing the same quality services, paying for dedicated staff and using more advanced supplies. That makes our operating budget a great challenge, and that’s where charitable donations come in. They are critical to helping us maintain a high level of care for the underserved children in our communities.”
“FirstHealth Dental Care is a real plus to the people in the area,” she adds. “We go above and beyond for our patients and their parents. And we care about what’s going on in their lives. We’re proud to provide dental care for the children in our region.”
The need is still great, she says. And she looks forward to expanding the program’s outreach.
To see how you can donate to the dental centers, visit www.firsthealth.org/foundation.
To learn more about FirstHealth Dental Care, or to see if your child qualifies for services, visit www.firsthealth.org/dental or call (910) 692-5111.