College receives grant to place dental hygienists in rural health clinics

February 27, 2020

In January of 2020, the BlueCross® BlueShield® of South Carolina Foundation awarded a generous grant to the MUSC James B. Edwards College of Dental Medicine. The 36-month grant supports the college’s efforts to improve oral health outcomes through integrated care by placing dental hygienists within primary care rural health clinics in the Pee Dee region.

“Initially we’re going to hire three hygienists supporting practices in Florence and Marion counties, specifically in Lake City, Johnsonville, Marion, and Mullins,” said Amy Martin, DrPH, MSPH, professor and chairwoman of the Department of Stomatology. “Their role will be to identify patients who are not receiving regular dental care, provide screening and basic prevention services, and then refer those patients to community dentists to receive ongoing care.”

Though the oral health of Americans has improved over the past 50 years, many Americans still lack access to dental care. In rural areas like the South Carolina Pee Dee region, this issue is magnified.

Rural populations face many barriers to dental care, including geographic isolation, lack of transportation, high rates of poverty, large elderly population, limited insurance coverage of oral health services, and difficulty finding providers willing to treat Medicaid patients. According to data from the American Dental Association, South Carolina is in the bottom third of the country when it comes to the number of dentists per resident, with just under 48 dentists per 100,000 people.

In addition, poor oral health is linked to higher rates of cardiovascular problems, such as heart attack or stroke, and preterm births or low birth weights. In addition, many systemic diseases often affect the oral cavity, including autoimmune disorders, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and gastrointestinal problems.

Increasing access to dental care by placing hygienists in the primary care setting will help doctors and dentists work together to prevent and treat systemic disease and address rural oral health disparities.

“As it relates to oral health, what we’re trying to do through this integrated effort is three-fold: help our primary care partners strengthen their system of care addressing all patient needs, including oral health; identify patients who are not receiving dental care and help them recognize the importance of oral health on their overall health; and finally facilitate collaborative partnerships with dentists in these communities and strengthen their role in elevating the health of rural residents,” Martin said. “We’re excited at the opportunity this grant affords us and look forward to the possibility of expanding it to more locations in the future.”

The BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina Foundation is an independent licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association.