USC dentistry and social work provide mobile dental clinic for homeless and at-risk veterans

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USC Mobile Dental Clinic
Dental student provides care to a veteran in the USC Mobile Dental Clinic.

During the week of April 15 - 21, 2021, five mobile dental clinics, containing 15 dental operatories, took over the parking lot of the Leo Baeck Temple near the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Medical Center (WLA VA) to provide free mobile dental care for veterans experiencing homelessness or at-risk for homelessness. The week-long dental clinic was the result of a monumental collaboration between Village for Vets, the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC and the Los Angeles Veterans Collaborative (LAVC), under the leadership of the Military and Veterans Programs at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

The goal was to provide comprehensive care for as many veterans as possible to ensure they are cavity-free, infection-free and pain-free. The mobile clinic served 59 veterans over 137 appointments; more than 850 dental procedures were performed by dental students supervised by faculty.

“Our mission is to advance the health and well-being of our nation’s service members, veterans and their families through innovation, research, education and community engagement,” said Giselle Corletto, project specialist for the LAVC at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. “That’s what we’re trying to do: give them access to something that is very much needed.”

The collaboration

Village for Vets, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to fill critical gaps in key services for homeless and at-risk veterans in greater Los Angeles, has co-chaired the WLA VA’s Homeless to Housed Stand Down event for the past three years. This event has served approximately 1,000 homeless and at-risk veterans and their families with free services, including clothing, showers, food, and help with legal, housing, employment and medical services. One of the most requested services has always been dental care. According to Mary McGuire, director of Village for Vets, the matrix is complicated for veterans to be eligible for dental care through the VA. Additionally, because WLA VA does not allow outside practitioners on its campus, dental services are not able to be provided at the annual event.

“There are a lot of veterans who fall through the cracks,” McGuire said. “Some are subjected to lengthy waiting periods and others simply aren’t eligible for dental through the VA, so they go without care.”

This year, Village for Vets decided to plan a standalone dental clinic, off campus, so they could finally get some dental care for the community.

McGuire reached out to Corletto — through the LAVC, which connected Village for Vets with Dr. Sanaz Fereshteh, assistant professor of clinical dentistry at Ostrow, and the mobile dental clinic event was born.

With funding from LAVC, and coordination with Village for Vets, Fereshteh was able to mobilize the USC Mobile Dental Clinic, which has been providing free dental treatment to underserved populations for more than 50 years. Ostrow runs 29 community programs, providing free or low-cost treatment and dental education to seniors, people experiencing homelessness, veterans, children and special needs patients.

Because Village for Vets is heavily involved on the WLA VA campus with multiple homeless programs, they were able to engage WLA VA program managers to identify veterans in need, complete necessary paperwork, provide COVID-19 testing, and organize transportation to the event. The comprehensive dental care provided for the veterans included seven days of exams, cleanings, x-rays, root canals, extractions, fillings, crowns and partial dentures for a community desperately in need.

“Being able to bring the clinic closer to where many of the encampments are in West Los Angeles made it a bit easier for a number of them who hadn't been to the dentist in years,” Fereshteh said. “This just gave them one less hurdle to overcome.”

McGuire and Fereshteh are already discussing scheduling and fundraising for another mobile dental clinic event in January 2022. “We continue to get calls from case managers of veterans asking if we still have the dental clinic and are you doing another one,” McGuire said. “Our mission is to fill gaps in service to homeless and at-risk veterans — and this is a gap.”

Providing education in outreach

Fereshteh explained that the mobile dental clinic is a requirement for dental students at Ostrow. “Because our programs are so large, one thing that's really great is our dental students get the experience with these populations,” Fereshteh said. “That makes a big difference in learning to serve the underserved and how to take care of them, and it usually sparks an interest in this kind of work.”

For Jesslyn Hodge, one of the dental students who provided services at the clinic, it was a tremendous opportunity to connect with the veteran population. “Being from Canada, I had no idea the extent of the health care challenges that many veterans face,” Hodge said. “Now I can continue to support the health of these men and women as I graduate and begin providing care as a professional.”

Every morning during the week of the dental clinic, faculty held a session with the students to provide additional training on best practices for working with the homeless and at-risk veteran population.

“We literally will cater to what their needs are and what they want, not what we think is best for them,” Fereshteh said. “We're teaching these students to approach it from the veteran’s perspective. What is their real motivation or priority? They might not be looking to make their teeth really, really white and get veneers. They may just want to not have pain or not have cavities and not worry about their teeth for a few years.”

Corletto, McGuire and Fereshteh all stressed the importance of viewing dental care as a necessity, not a luxury. “It does impact your entire overall health, not just your oral health,” Fereshteh said. "They’re dealing with diabetes, high blood pressure, issues that are directly correlated to dentistry and needing dental treatment. It’s heartbreaking that they don’t have a smoother option.”

The mobile dental clinic event is a perfect example of the type of multidisciplinary collaboration that the school of social work aims to achieve year-round through the LAVC. “We bring different sectors together to be able to provide the best services for veterans,” Corletto said. “We all have the same mission, which is to provide and improve the quality of life for veterans and military service members.”

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