New mobile dental clinic serves low-income seniors in Oxford, Elgin

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Call it a different kind of motor mouth.

The health unit in Elgin and Oxford counties is taking dental care on the road, turning a mini-bus into a clinic on wheels with funding from a provincial program for low-income seniors who can’t afford to see a dentist.

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“Access to care is a huge issue for many people in our jurisdiction because there isn’t public transport. We wanted to bring services to our clients,” said David Smith, healthy foundations program director at Southwestern Public Health. “We’re hoping the uptake is going to be big in those smaller communities.”

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Southwestern’s mobile dental clinic cost about $550,000, Smith said. Workers retrofitted a bus with state-of-the-art equipment you’d find in a regular dental office, including a dental chair, tools for fillings and cleanings and monitors so staff can review oral hygiene education with patients. The walls of the bus are lead-lined to accommodate the X-ray machine inside, Smith said.

“There’s room to have a dentist and dental assistant, or a dental assistant and a dental hygienist provide treatments,” he said. “Anything you can do in a dental office, you can do in this vehicle.”

The mobile clinic hit the streets weeks ago and is making stops at community centres in West Lorne, Dutton, Tillsonburg and Vienna in the coming weeks. The bus is out one day a week at this point, but the health unit is hoping to scale up to two or three times a week in the coming months, Smith said.

Southwestern Public Health’s mobile dental clinic
Southwestern Public Health’s mobile dental clinic includes a dental chair, tools and monitors. The clinic is making stops at community centres in West Lorne, Dutton, Tillsonburg and Vienna in the coming weeks. Photo shot in St. Thomas on Sept. 20, 2023. (Derek Ruttan/The London Free Press)

“We’re also looking at if there are any clients in the seniors dental care program that are homebound or in long-term care facilities, so we can bring the vehicle right to their house or facility to help these people,” he said, adding the mobile dental clinic can see five to eight patients a day.

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The health unit put a business case to the province that involved a brick-and-mortar dental clinic at Woodstock’s community health centre and the creation of a mobile unit to reach far-flung parts of the two counties. The dental bus concept had been successfully tried by other health units, and Southwestern officials thought it would be a good fit for them, Smith said.

The province came back with funding for the projects and health unit officials put the mobile dental clinic out to tender, Smith said.

The mobile clinic is seeing patients eligible for the province’s senior dental care program that launched in 2019. It provides eligible low-income adults 65 and older with checkups, cleanings, X-rays and oral surgery.

Unlike Ontario’s Healthy Smiles program for children — which allows eligible low-income kids to seek care at a dental office of their choosing — the senior dental care program is fully run by health units.

The threshold for the senior dental care program is an annual net income of $22,200 or less for one person or a combined income of $37,100 or less for a couple. The program is open only to seniors without other dental benefits or coverage.

Southwestern has had nearly 1,000 patients seek service under the provincial program to date, Smith said. Patients first do an intake appointment at the health unit’s Woodstock clinic, but ones from areas served by the mobile clinic have the option of booking there at subsequent appointments, he said.

In June, the Middlesex-London Health Unit opened a dental clinic in Strathroy for low-income seniors. The health unit also has a dental clinic at its Citi Plaza headquarters in London.

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