A mobile dental service is improving access to care for underserved communities. Drop-In Medical recently visited Yerington, in Lyon County, for the first time. It’s one of the several rural counties in the state grappling with a shortage of dental providers.
KUNR’s Natalie Van Hoozer made the trip out there to learn more about the need for dental as part of overall health care in the region.
Editor’s note: Since the publication of this story, the mobile dental company changed its name from “Drop-In Medical” to “Drop-In Dental.” We have updated the name within the text, though the audio and photos don’t reflect this change.
One Sunday in late April, I drove 70 miles from Reno to Yerington to check out a mobile dental unit, which was there as part of a pop-up rural outreach clinic at the South Lyon Medical Center. The clinic was organized by the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine. The health and dental services at these clinics are free of charge to people who can’t afford care, and providers don’t ask for ID.
Despite some wind and a threat of rain, about 10 people, including patients and organizers, were already there.
“The fact that this is so easily accessible and that it’s free makes it all the more comfortable to come to,” said Yerington resident Darlene Marie Triplett, who said she relies on this health clinic.
Right next to the clinic she visited, was the dental van. It’s 40 feet long and has sides that expand for extra space.
That’s where I found Sean Laughlin waiting for his dental checkup. He lives in Silver City, a small town below Virginia City, and drove about an hour to Yerington.
“I need some work done on a tooth, and I was planning on going to my dentist in Mexico because it’s a lot less expensive than here in America,” said Laughlin. “When I found out about this, that it was in my own county, here in Yerington, I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got to give that a try. It sounds like something I’d be interested in.’ ”
I stepped inside the unit to check it out. It has two patient rooms separated by a waiting area.
Vazquez said the dental issues she sees in rural and urban Nevada are similar, but the lack of access to dental care in rural areas can present challenges.
“When you start getting into an area of neglect, and you don’t have regular cleanings, and your gums get inflamed, then you have bone loss,” Vazquez said. “Loss of function with your teeth and not having biting surfaces is a health problem because you can’t eat nutritional food.”
Vazquez said this lack of dental care can exacerbate other serious health issues as well.
“There’s a link between periodontal [or gum] disease and cardiac disease as well, so there’s that medical, oral link,” she said.
There are just two dental practices in Yerington, serving a population of more than 3,000 people. For those looking for additional care, the closest urban areas with more options, Reno and Carson City, are over an hour away.
To bring care to rural communities, UNR medical students organize free, pop-up clinics in coordination with the Healthy Communities Coalition. The nonprofit is based in the rural Dayton area and helps people struggling with access to health care and food insecurities.
Wendy Madson heads up the nonprofit. She said she realized there was a vital need for dental care during a conversation she had with volunteers.
“Two of our food pantry volunteers had come in to serve and had shared that the night before, they had pulled each other’s teeth in their garage because they had infections in these painful teeth and couldn’t get taken care of. So it really opened our eyes to what is happening, why and what are we going to do about it,” she said.
To address this need, Madson and her team worked to include Drop-In Medical’s mobile dental services as part of the pop-up clinic. Madson said the response was immediate.
“We put out the information for the appointments, and it filled up in two hours. We have a waitlist a page and a half long,” she said.
Serving patients who otherwise might not have access to care is one of the main reasons UNR medical students and doctors volunteer. The med students offer services including immunizations, blood work and diabetes care.
Taree Chadwick is a first-year medical student and one of the clinic managers.
“Rural health care is vastly different. We will see patients who haven’t seen a doctor in six, seven years,” she said.
Chadwick also said the medical students gain valuable training.
“It’s a lot of problem-solving and figuring out what is best for the patient,” she said. “There’s a lot of creative thinking involved, and I think that’s kind of what rural health care is. It’s a lot of ‘Alright, what resources do we have, how can we provide what’s best for our patients?’ ”
Mobile clinics can help fill in some of these gaps. A recent study in the International Journal of Equity in Health found that mobile clinics can reduce barriers. These clinics visit areas that are typically underserved, lessening the need for transportation and providing additional resources. Mobile clinics have also proved effective at reaching rural communities in other parts of the country, including Tennessee, where medical care for the uninsured is hard to find.
The UNR medical students are planning outreach for another underserved group, migrant farmworkers, which will start this summer. The rural outreach clinics currently offered take place in Yerington, Silver Springs and Lovelock.
This article was written by Natalie Van Hoozer for KUNR Public Radio and published on May 7, 2021.