Our guest blogger today is Karen Scott, a Public Relations Specialist at A.T. Still University:
Arizona’s A.T. Still University of Health Sciences (ATSU), a longtime NACHC partner, is known for innovative curricula that prepare medical and dental students to work with underserved populations by embedding the students in Community Health Centers (CHCs) for large chunks of their education. What better way to get to know the types of patients they’ll care for and the team-based, medical-home settings in which they’ll do it? The patients served by these CHCs are not the only underserved communities in the school’s sights. At The Center for Advanced Oral Health, one of four teaching dental clinics connected to ATSU’s Arizona School of Dentistry & Oral Health, changes are underway that will help a group not usually thought of as at risk: older adults.
As the number of aging baby boomers grows, so does the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease and other complex medical conditions. According to the National Institute on Aging, there may already be as many as 5 million Americans 65 and older who suffer from Alzheimer’s, with the number doubling every five years after 65. It’s no surprise that Arizona, long a favorite retirement location for Americans, is fast becoming home to one of the country’s largest Alzheimer’s populations. The national Alzheimer’s Association reports that 120,000 Arizonans have the disease and projects that, between now and 2025, the state will have the second-highest growth rate in the country.
As the healthcare system scrambles to catch up, one of the areas often ignored is dental care. For older people with Alzheimer’s, other types of dementia, and complex physical conditions like cancer, cardiac disease, hemophilia and kidney disease, even run-of-the-mill dental procedures like fillings and cleanings, to say nothing of root canals, crowns, extractions and implants, require anesthesia. The trouble is, it’s not always readily available.
At ATSU’s Center for Advanced Oral Health, the number of affected patients already outstrips capacity. For every person receiving anesthesia (via a mobile cart), three are on the waiting list, and the waiting period is three months long. That’s a delay that can have “devastating effects on a patient’s overall health,” says Maureen Perry, DDS, MPA, a nationally known expert in special care dentistry who directs the clinic and is Associate Dean for Post-Doctoral Education at the dental school.
But things are looking up. This summer, The Center will become Arizona’s first nonprofit community dental clinic with permanent dental anesthesia suites. Courtesy of a grant from the Phoenix-based Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, the clinic is creating two fully-equipped anesthesia suites and adding waiting and recovery areas specially designed to be oases of calm and comfort for older adults.
Opened in 2013, ATSU’s Center for Advanced Oral Health is Arizona’s first community dental clinic dedicated to what’s known as special care dentistry. The clinic is staffed with faculty members from the university’s Arizona School of Dentistry & Oral Health trained to care for patients with physical and cognitive challenges. They’re also expert at caring for people whose developmental challenges mean that even basic dental care can require a team of doctors rather than a solo practitioner. Before the 11,000-square-foot state-of-the-art clinic began operating, many Arizona residents with these conditions had to go outside the state for dental care. Others simply went without.
Like ATSU’s three other teaching clinics, The Center for Advanced Oral Health is both an out-patient treatment facility and a training center for ATSU’s post-doctoral dental residents and dental and medical students.