As a student at ECU School of Dental Medicine, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC) Foundation Schweitzer Fellow Kiersten Bethea, is extremely passionate about increasing access to oral health care and educating the public about the connection oral health has to overall health. Studies demonstrate that many dental conditions, such as infections, are strongly correlated with exacerbations of systemic diseases like cardiovascular disease and diabetes. “Unfortunately, for many families dental care is either not an option or is low on the priority list,” Bethea says.
When Bethea met her Schweitzer partner and ECU Brody School of Medicine student, Samantha Forlenza, she found a kindred spirit. Forlenza’s undergraduate degree in public health and nutrition sparked her interest in interdisciplinary care. Together, they wanted to do something to make a genuine difference in patient’s lives. So, they decided to focus on one of the most vulnerable populations, people who are homeless.
When Forlenza began volunteering at Greenville Homeless Shelter Clinic, she was alarmed by the long wait times patients experienced in order to receive dental care at the James D. Bernstein Community Health Center, which serves patients for a sliding scale fee. Thus, the idea for their Schweitzer project was born.
As Blue Cross NC Foundation Schweitzer Fellows, they launched the Holistic Interprofessional Project (HIP), a free clinic that is housed within East Carolina University School of Dental Medicine that provides emergency dental care and nutritional counseling to people who are homeless in Greenville, North Carolina. They expect to serve at least 75 patients with free services worth more than $10,000.
The patients are grateful for the opportunity to be free of pain and served by such empathetic providers. In one case, Bethea assisted as a patient of hers underwent tooth extractions at the HIP clinic. The patient shared with Bethea her recent hardships and also revealed that she had a dental phobia. Bethea worked to console and calm the patient when she became anxious at points during the procedure. As the patient prepared to leave when the procedure concluded, she pulled Bethea aside to thank her for helping her and expressed how grateful she was to finally have been able to get the procedure done. Because of her current financial straits, she told Bethea, she had just been “dealing” with the tooth pain for months, but now she felt relief.
“It truly warmed my heart to know that through HIP we had made a difference in this young lady’s day-to-day life,” Bethea said.
Another critical aspect of the project is treating the patients with dignity and respect and seeing them as a whole person. “When you are able to sit with them and put their needs in front of your efficient mindset, to pause, reach out a hand, look them in the eye and say that they will be cared for when they are sitting in your chair, that’s what’s important at the end of the day,” said Forlenza.
Bethea and Forlenza both expressed gratitude at the eagerness of people from ECU and the broader community to help them get HIP off the ground. For example, when their first transportation option for getting patients to and from the clinic fell through a week before their launch date, two local churches stepped up to shuttle patients to and from the site for free.
“The community support in Greenville has been inspiring,” said Forlenza.
“Samantha and I, along with our advisors Drs. Kimberley Gise, Rob Doherty, Tom Irons and Maudia Ahmad from AccessEast, worked incredibly hard to build this clinic, but to get things moving, we relied on help from a number of incredibly generous people,” Bethea said. “We never could have done it without them.”
In the short term, the Fellows are hopeful that HIP is mitigating the long wait times for care at other local clinics and that it will remain as a service for people who are homeless in Greenville to seek emergency dental care and preventive medicine. Eventually, they would like for the program to expand to serve children and to include other professional disciplines, thereby increasing their capacity to address more patient needs in their target population.
“HIP has made a significant impact on the community thus far, but we would love to see even more patients cared for and more services offered through this project in the future,” said Bethea.
It has also impacted Forlenza to the point where she hopes to replicate the model in her eventual career as either a family medicine practitioner or pediatrician. “In either occupation, wherever I end up practicing, I would love to partner with a local dentist and establish continued and holistic care for my patients,” she said.
For Bethea, the Fellowship project offered a reminder that service is part and parcel of being in helping, nurturing profession such as dentistry. As a Fellow for Life, she looks forward to being part of a “serving force” that is much bigger than any individual.
“To think that I have been blessed to be a part of such a phenomenal group of like-minded, service-oriented individuals is so moving and empowering,” she said. “I look forward to staying connected and addressing the needs of communities with my Schweitzer family for many years to come.”