Medical Teams International expands mobile clinics to deliver more health care services to patients in need
The nonprofit’s free dental clinics were a long-standing community service supported by Regence’s corporate foundation, but a new program added health screenings, insurance sign-ups and referrals for vulnerable populations.
For more than 30 years, Medical Teams International has steered its fleet of vans equipped with mobile dental clinics around Oregon and Washington, offering urgent care to people without insurance, money or adequate access to dental care.
Medical Teams invites patients to step aboard one by one and settle into a dental chair for long overdue care. The patients span all ages and backgrounds. Some are homeless. Others live in rural areas and lack ready access to services. Many have gone years without dental care and come to the mobile clinic with active infections and severe pain.
The vans have served an important role in the community, delivering critical dental care to underserved populations, including people living in poverty, members of marginalized groups and those with disabilities. But recently, the vans’ purpose has evolved.
First, the vans were co-opted to take COVID-19 vaccines to various places and populations around the region where vaccines weren’t readily available. Then, with the help of a grant from Regence’s corporate foundation, the vans became the venue for a new initiative: Care & Connect, a program that continued to offer dental care and vaccines but added more services, such as screenings for hypertension, diabetes and behavioral health issues, plus insurance enrollment and connections to additional services.
The goal of the mobile clinics was to identify patients’ most pressing needs, collect essential health data that will inform their treatment plans and make referrals, connecting patients with additional services and low-cost care. Since Medical Teams began its COVID-19 response in July 2021, the Care & Connect program has implemented more than 1,200 mobile clinics in Oregon and Washington, serving more than 39,000 patients by providing integrated health services.
“It’s critical that people receive personalized care when and where it’s needed, especially our most vulnerable community members,” said Dr. Donna Milavetz, senior vice president and chief medical officer at Regence. “Medical Teams’ integrated care approach ensures they’re addressing the whole person, including physical and behavioral health needs, which will hopefully improve and maintain patients’ long-term health.”
Expanded care empowers patients
The Care & Connect program emerged as a natural expansion of the vans’ original mission to provide oral health care for people in need. Jill Ewanchuk, a Medical Teams International program manager, says the crews providing dental care often encountered heart-wrenching scenes and knew their patients’ needs were far-reaching.
“We were this non-biased helper,” she says. “Someone would end up crying in the dental chair about being houseless or being in a domestic relationship that was not great.”
Collaborating to help the community
Care & Connect is just one of many Medical Teams International projects that Regence’s corporate foundation, Cambia Health Foundation, has supported over the years. The two organizations have a relationship that spans decades, tracing back to the dental vans’ early days.
“In 2022, we launched a 10-year vision to advance equity through whole-person health in underserved communities,” said Peggy Maguire, president of Cambia Health Foundation. “Through its Care & Connect program, Medical Teams International is addressing the physical, social and behavioral aspects of personal health, and we’re honored to support this work.”
Read more online about Regence’s corporate foundation and its strategic focus areas in serving community needs across Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Utah.
The crews recognized that their patients’ terrible tooth pain was often one of many problems—the patients might also be experiencing hunger, violence, substance abuse, a mental health condition, chronic illness or a multitude of overlapping challenges.
Another clue about patients’ overall health came from blood-pressure screenings, a routine part of the dental exam that patients receive in the van.
“We always talked about blood pressure, and we did a blood pressure check on every dental patient because we don’t want anyone to have a stroke in our chair,” Ewanchuk says.
The screening results often showed that patients had medical issues extending far beyond their teeth. That naturally led to another conversation: “There’s the education component where we say, ‘Hey, you’re like a walking heart attack,’” she says.
The Medical Teams staff conversations with patients—and even the dental work itself—often revealed a patchwork of unmet needs. In one unforgettable case, Ewanchuk says, a woman who was living out of her decaying vehicle came to the mobile clinic for care. Her needs were so severe, the dentist pulled seven teeth that day.
The dentist, who was experienced at working on patients in jail, wasn’t easy to rattle. But, Ewanchuck recalls, in this case, he was clearly unnerved when he said to her, “Jill, she would have been dead in three days.”
In cases like that, the clinic team would be left wondering what happened after a patient left the clinic. The Care & Connect program helped change that.
At the Care & Connect clinics, in addition to dental services such as exams, cleanings, fillings and extractions, patients also received a comprehensive intake that includes screenings for hypertension, diabetes and mental health, plus COVID-19 vaccines and other immunizations, insurance enrollment and referrals for primary care.
Ewanchuk says there’s a meaningful link between a person’s oral health and their overall health. By expanding the mobile clinic service offerings, providers gain the chance to deliver better care and help patients more.
“It's all connected,” Ewanchuk says. “Poor oral health results in diabetes and cardiac issues. Oral health is systematically affecting your brain and your energy.”
The expanded services have allowed the clinic team to collect more data, identify pressing health issues, and provide important education and referrals. Sometimes patients need information about their medications, nutrition, hygiene and other steps they can take to improve their health. The services provided through Care & Connect open the door for that education.
And by arming the clinic team with more information about the patient, doctors and nurses can deliver a deeper level of care, which helps improve health outcomes and ensures patients get plugged into ongoing health care.
After the screenings, a patient might find out they have a serious medical condition, but they could also leave the clinic newly enrolled in Medicaid, with next steps for seeking treatment and knowledge about how to make small but important changes to improve their health.
“There’s no solemness to it, even if people are leaving with bad news,” Ewanchuk says.
During the past several months of Care & Connect clinics, patients have been grateful for the expanded services, she says.
“Everybody does better when they have choices,” Ewanchuk says. “And everybody does better when they feel like they're in control of their life.”