Towson University – Helping Up Mission Oral Health Care Project
Poor oral health significantly impacts quality of life and may result in unnecessary pain and suffering; loss of self-esteem; decreased productivity through lost days at work and school; difficulty chewing, speaking, or swallowing; and even death. Maryland ranks eighth in the United States and sixth among African-American males in mortality rates from oral cancer. Moreover, recent research has linked periodentitis, or gum disease, to diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and pancreatic cancer. In addition to health concerns, persons with serious dental problems may have difficulty finding a job, because employers may be reluctant to hire someone with rotting or missing teeth.
Homeless persons are disproportionately at risk for oral-health problems. Poverty, substance abuse, and co-occurring medical and psychiatric disorders render this population particularly susceptible to poor oral health. Compounding these problems, oral-health resources for the homeless are scarce, under-funded, and generally inadequate to meet the needs of this population. Programs that do exist for this population often have long waiting lists, and some have co-payment requirements that are cost prohibitive for homeless clients.
Recognizing the gap in services relative to the needs of the homeless population, in 2006 the Towson University Department of Nursing, in collaboration with the University of Maryland Dental School, launched a pilot oral-health screening and treatment program at the Helping Up Mission, a faith-based program located in East Baltimore that provides housing, supportive services, and residential substance abuse treatment to homeless men. The project leverages extensive volunteer resources, including Towson University Nursing students who provide oral health education and coordinate care for the Mission residents; University of Maryland dental students who provide on site oral health screenings at the Mission; and volunteer dentists, hygienists and oral surgeons at the dental school who provide restorative care to Mission residents. In the project’s first two years, nearly 300 Mission residents participated in oral health education fairs, and over 250 residents received emergency or comprehensive dental treatment at the University of Maryland Dental School.
In addition to delivering critical oral health services to a population desperately in need of such services, this project is educating a new generation of health care providers on the needs of homeless individuals. More than 160 dental students and over 30 nursing students have participated in the program since its inception, and they report dramatic changes in their views on homelessness and a greater desire to work with underserved populations as a result of their experience with this project.