California’s Medi-Cal expansion has improved access to health care for thousands of low income adults, but the high cost of dental care keeps it out of reach for many Southern California residents. Since 2008, with UniHealth Foundation grants totaling $858,314, MEND and the Loma Linda University School of Dentistry have been doing their part to open the door to high quality dental care for low income residents of the northeast San Fernando Valley. Every Tuesday, Dr. Zeger Zeger, Loma Linda faculty preceptor, oversees the oral health care provided by International Dental Students from Loma Linda University School of Dentistry at MEND, the only free dental clinic in the San Fernando Valley. These dentists who have been educated outside of the U.S. must complete two years of training in order to be licensed to practice here. Himself a graduate of the program, Dr. Zeger insists the symbiotic partnership benefits the dental students as much as it does MEND’s patients. He says that the experience of providing meaningful service is every bit as important as mastering the dental techniques used in the U.S. system of care.
Forced by war and religious persecution to leave his home country of Iraq, Dr. Zeger’s commitment to mission is palpable. “My goal is to teach my students higher critical thinking skills. I want them to feel a sense of compassionate care with other human beings so as soon as they start practicing, they will give back,” he explains. That compassionate care is exactly what Ted M. is receiving from student dentist Roxana Salem. Ted counts himself lucky to have found MEND. A hard working native of Honduras, Ted has Medi-Cal health insurance but it does not cover the procedures he needs. He does not have dental insurance and cannot afford to pay a private dentist. He says a friend told him about MEND. “I’m glad to have found this place. They are very nice people and everyone is friendly. They treat me good. I love my dentist.” Dr. Salem adds, “I enjoy working here. I see more patients and get to do more complex treatments. I learn a lot.”
With only two full-time administrative employees, MEND’s all volunteer dental clinic has experienced spectacular growth since 2008, when nine volunteer dentists and the Loma Linda dental students provided 972 patient encounters. Today, thirty-six community dentists see thirty to forty new patients each month and develop treatment plans for them. Because many patients have delayed care, their treatment plans often include complex procedures and dentures. Additional partnerships have been created with the UCLA School of Dentistry and Western University’s College of Dentistry. Dental hygiene students from West Los Angeles Community College and dental assistant students from Concorde Career College and United Education Institute do clinical rotations at MEND. In 2014, these volunteers provided 5,200 patient encounters, and the goal for 2015 is 10% growth.
Access to dental care remains a huge struggle for low income residents of Southern California. Medi-Cal’s dental program provides only limited oral health services and does not cover complex procedures such as root canals and dentures. Programs like Loma Linda’s Dental Community Service Program fill critical gaps in the continuum of health care services for those most in need, providing compassionate, respectful and high quality oral health care. The Dental Community Service Program also offers dental students and dentists trained outside the United States the opportunity to provide meaningful service at a pivotal time in their careers and may foster the development of a new generation of lifelong volunteers. “We take care of a lot of sick people here.” says Dr. Zeger. “I’d love to see this program keep going and I’m still willing to come here every week. This work is important.”