FirstHealth Dental Centers Mark 10th Anniversary
When Nicanor Sanchez, of Robbins, was just 8 years old, his face became very swollen and painful. He was uncomfortable, and it was difficult to eat or pay attention in school.
Sanchez was sent to the newly opened FirstHealth Dental Care Center for evaluation.
Today, Sanchez is 18 years old. Thanks to the services he received at the Dental Care Center 10 years ago, he understands the importance of good dental health and is committed to caring for his teeth and gums.
"I don't remember all of the details about that first visit," he says. "My face hurt, and I was scared. They needed to take out several of my teeth, because they were rotting."
Ten years ago, stories like Sanchez's were all too common in the region. People, especially children, who did not qualify for Medicaid or have private insurance often didn't get dental treatment until there was an emergency, like an abscessed tooth or a painful infection.
This fall, the FirstHealth Dental Care Centers celebrates 10 years of protecting the smiles of children throughout the community. The three centers have served more than 16,000 children since 1998.
In the late 1990s, FirstHealth of the Carolinas conducted a survey of school professionals, health providers and parents in the region. The response overwhelmingly indicated that lack of dental care services created learning challenges in schools and negatively affected the overall health of many young children.
Complicating the problem was the fact that many area dental practices weren't accepting new patients while others were unable to provide care for uninsured patients or those receiving Medicaid.
In 1998, FirstHealth started a new service designed to provide quality dental care for children in the mid-Carolinas.
Like Sanchez, nearly 70 percent of the children who were seen during the program's first year had either never had dental care or had not been treated in more than 12 months.
Originally funded by grants from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, the Duke Endowment and FirstHealth's Community Benefit Fund, the FirstHealth Dental Care Centers serve the needs of area children from birth to 18, providing comprehensive dental services for Medicaid and Health Choice recipients as well as for as uninsured or underinsured individuals who meet financial guidelines.
The centers are in Southern Pines, where services are offered six days a week; Troy (three days a week); and Raeford (two days a week). Three full-time dentists provide routine dental care, promote disease prevention, encourage early detection and intervention, and ensure care for children with dental emergencies.
During the 2007 fiscal year, that translated into more then $2.5 million in dental care.
"Dental care is a much-needed, but often overlooked element of health care," says Dr. Sharon Nicholson Harrell, director of the FirstHealth Dental Care Centers. "Because parents often do not understand the relationship between teeth, gums and their children's overall health, they may put off dental visits. Children need an annual physical from their family doctor to be certain that they are developing normally.
"Likewise, they need regular check-ups from the dentist to spot any decay or other problems with their teeth or gums that might hurt them over time."
At every visit, members of the Dental Care Center staff work to educate parents and children about how to care for their teeth.
"Before I started going to the Dental Care Center, I didn't do a good job with my teeth," Sanchez says. "Every time we were there, they talked to me about how to take care of myself. They showed me the right way to brush and floss, and they taught my mom what needed to be done. It helped a lot."
Harrell and her staff regard every visit as an opportunity to teach children and parents about the importance of dental health.
"Hopefully, the time we spend with each family will help make sure our message is passed along not only that day, but also to future generations," she says. "When you reach out to a child, you have the chance to affect not only that individual, but everyone he or she connects with throughout life."
Dental Care Center employees have also participated in numerous projects and programs to bring attention to the dental needs of children locally, statewide and nationally.
"Our commitment to children and families includes helping other organizations develop similar programs and encouraging our leaders to take an active role in promoting children's health," says Dr. Harrell.
Private donations to the Foundation of FirstHealth support services, and a special Kids in Crisis fund helps with extensive restorative care that is not currently available through the local centers.
Smart Start funds targeting children up to age 5 have been available since 1999, and families that don't have Medicaid or Health Choice coverage are expected to share a portion of the cost of care.
The need is great and apparently growing.
"We are concerned that as recent changes in the economy affect area businesses and industries, we will be serving even more children in need," Harrell says. "In fact, recent data from the Division of Medical Assistance indicates that the number of Moore County children under 21 receiving Medicaid has increased more than 70 percent in the last two years. Although we have made great improvements, there is more work to be done, and we are already planning for the future."
Same-day appointments are currently available for new FirstHealth Dental Care Center patients, and Saturday appointments are available at the Southern Pines and Raeford clinics. For more information or to make an appointment, call 692-5111 in Southern Pines, 904-7450 in Raeford or 572-1700 in Troy.
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