Photo courtesy of Community Smiles DentalCommunity Smiles Dental is one of the only public dental providers for children in the four-county region.
By Jill Blazek
The most common chronic disease facing children in our country is tooth decay, and it’s 100 percent preventable. Children from low-income families are twice as likely to have cavities and individuals who are state-insured through programs like BadgerCare or Medicaid struggle to find dental care from providers who accept these insurances. While public dental options exist, there are not nearly enough providers to meet the demand, especially for children.
This is where Community Smiles Dental (CSD) plays a critical role in Waukesha County and the surrounding region. Over the past 15 years, the organization has provided nearly $34 million in care to over 30,000 patients, and demand continues to grow. Its two clinics each have between 40 and 50 appointments every day, equaling more than 12,000 appointments per year, with a waitlist of about 250 patients for each clinic. Hundreds more community members are served through outreach and education. While the majority of patients – 69 percent – are from Waukesha County, the clinics also see patients from surrounding counties, with 21 percent from Milwaukee County, eight percent from Washington County, and one percent from Ozaukee County.
“In our four-county service area, there are more than 124,000 children on state insurance, and we are one of the only public dentistry providers who will accommodate pediatric care,” said Renee Ramirez, chief executive officer and founding director.
Creating a Healthier Community
CSD services include comprehensive oral exams, emergency oral exams, preventative services including oral hygiene instruction, fluoride treatments and sealants, x-rays, restorative services and extractions.
“We have a variety of dentists and hygienists that work with us. Some are full-time with us, others are part-time while working for a family dental practice, and others are retired. And we do engage dental students here through internships with Marquette and the technical schools, allowing them to experience what it would be like to work in a public dental practice,” said Ramirez. “We create not just a dental care touchpoint but an ongoing dental provider, ensuring our patients can maintain proper oral health through routine access to dental care and oral health education.”
Last year, CSD reports that 100 percent of its patients received a cavities risk assessment, 88 percent of patients completed their oral health treatment plans, and 70 percent of children served returned for follow-up preventative care, with 51 percent of those having no new cavities.
The majority of the CSD budget goes directly towards the clinical providers required to deliver dental treatment to patients in need. While Medicaid reimbursements cover about 40-50 percent of the budget, CSD also depends on support from the community through fundraising programs, donations and volunteer opportunities. Without donations of time, talents and treasures, CSD would not be able to create healthy smiles and healthy children through access to oral healthcare and dental services.
How Community Smiles Dental Was Created
It was in the mid-2000s when two public health nurses from ProHealth Waukesha Memorial Hospital were assigned to visit schools in the Waukesha area and noticed that children who appeared in the health room with holes in their teeth and dental pain had nowhere to go for care since most were low income or uninsured. They expressed their concern to hospital leadership and since the hospital also saw a high volume of patients in the emergency room for dental pain, they recognized the need for a better solution. The Waukesha County Dental Coalition was formed, consisting of community leaders, area dentists and philanthropists to develop a plan to address the need. In May of 2008, the Waukesha County Community Dental Clinic opened its doors.
“We anticipated initial patient interest would be low, but it didn’t take long for the community word of mouth to spread and soon, we needed to hire more dental providers,” said Ramirez. “At the five-year mark, we were at capacity, with two dentists and two hygienists maximizing our six-chair clinic.”
When Froedtert Hospital approached them with a proposal to fund a second clinic, the team embraced the opportunity, and in 2018, the Menomonee Falls clinic opened. The primary focus continues to be serving uninsured and underinsured children, which represent 85 percent of patients, as well as low-income pregnant women, special needs patients and medically fragile adults.
In 2021, the organization rebranded as Community Smiles Dental, with a mission to improve the lives of the underserved through oral healthcare services, preventative education, and advocating for systemic healthcare change.
Education Is Key
Dental care is an important part of an individual’s overall healthcare, making preventative oral health education key. The organization continually seeks ways to extend its reach into the community.
“A key partnership is with the schools in our communities. We’ve scaled an oral health education program that goes into schools, which is tailored for children ages four to 18. It helps them understand how they can be healthier with home dental care, oral health, signs of an oral health emergency and how to navigate their insurance,” said Emily Lukasek, vice president of strategy & development for CSD.
“We’ve also expanded work with our medical partners on a medical/dental integration program where we incorporate dental screenings, oral health education and fluoride treatments within a child’s well-child visit or a pregnant mom’s OB-GYN visit,” she shared.
CSD strives to be a strong partner with the community and is currently in the exploration stage of how to meet the growing demand for its services, including opening an additional clinic as well as expanding the community outreach programs.