Spring 2017

3 Questions for Shannon Griffin, D96

How one dentist is confronting access to care.

By Divya Amladi

As the chair of Oklahoma Mission of Mercy, a two-day free clinic for those without access to dental care, Shannon Griffin, D96, had to turn down patients at 3:45 in the morning during last year’s event. The doors weren’t set to open until 5 a.m., but people had been lining up since the previous evening. Nearly half of all Oklahoma residents lack dental insurance. Griffin, who practices at Griffin Smiles Comprehensive Dentistry and serves as vice president of the Oklahoma Dental Association and director of the Advanced Education in General Dentistry Residency at the University of Oklahoma College of Dentistry, has been working with Mission of Mercy for eight years to provide basic services for those who are in urgent need of dental care. Tufts Dental Medicine spoke with her about access to care and what might be done to get more patients to the dentist.

More than 100 million people in the United States might not have dental insurance, and many who are covered are underinsured. To what extent have you witnessed this?

 I didn’t realize how great the need was until I was exposed to Mission of Mercy. I saw 1,000 people sleeping in a frozen parking lot to get into line for free dentistry. With the Affordable Care Act, there are more options for patients to get stand-alone coverage, but most individual plans don’t provide adequate assistance, so you’re seeing people come in for diagnosis and emergencies, but not preventive care.

What are the long-term effects of this access gap?

Dental diseases can be silent diseases. Dental decay is the number one childhood disease, and a lot of times parents don’t recognize it. Any childhood disease can set a kid back because they can’t focus in school. For the children of American Indians, the decay rate is almost double. Most tribes have dental clinics that are located far from their residences, so they don’t ever seek care. And if you’re not receiving care, you may also not be aware of oral health issues and their connection to your overall health.

What can be done to address the issue on the individual, local or federal levels?

Our dental foundation in Oklahoma has mobile units that go into communities that don’t have any access to care. Primarily the focus there is on restoration and diagnosis and prevention. One problem is getting professionals into rural areas. While student loan debt forgiveness plans have been helpful for attracting young dentists, the challenge is keeping them in those areas. In places like Alaska, mid-level providers have really made a difference. The American Dental Association has done a great job making access to care a priority, but we need to continue education, not just for the public, but also so that dental professionals realize the urgency of the issue.

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