Suprena Crawford knows how difficult it can be for some patients to start their journeys to better oral health. She learned that for 19 years as a dental hygienist. And she’s continuing to learn it in her role as a DentaQuest member outreach coordinator.
Fortunately, she’s finding ways to turn that learning into action.
“What was really eye opening for me was how we could help people on a broader scale,” said Crawford, who has been in her role for two years. “I can go to a community event and give a message of the importance of oral health to 50 people instead of just one.”
The individual cases stick with her, though. Cases like Kelly.
Kelly first met Suprena at a community meeting in Colorado. After struggling to find a provider who would be able to work with her daughter with special needs, Kelly was looking for help. Suprena spent time working with her one-on-one to find a new dentist, who turned out to be the perfect fit for her daughter — and the whole family.
“The one-on-one interaction is so important and impactful,” Suprena says. “And we’re talking to, in many cases, families that have grown up without dental care — whether because of fear, cultural differences, financial barriers or lack of education on its importance.”
Kelly and her husband John both needed substantial dental work after a series of health events that took their lives in unexpected directions.
Now, less than a year later, Kelly’s family is almost to maintenance level with their dental care.
“They’re feeling good, out of pain and smiling,” says Suprena. “That’s what this is all about.”
Closing the Gap Between Providers and the Community
Kelly’s struggle to access oral care for her family is not unique. In fact, 43 percent of Americans live in rural areas that lack access to dental care. More than 74 million Americans lack access to dental coverage — and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted health care systems and resulted in millions of lost jobs.
One way that DentaQuest tackles this is by deploying a team of outreach coordinators that focuses on making the connections that make taking that first step just a little bit easier. As one of three DentaQuest member outreach coordinators in Colorado, part of a team that covers 12 states, Suprena works with local community partners in the mostly rural areas of Western Colorado to connect members with the oral care they need.
When possible, she attends events and meetings with community partners and members, sometimes driving up to 10 hours to attend and reach members in rural areas. (The meetings are virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic.) At one of those meetings, the quarterly council meeting, a group of DentaQuest members and member advocates work together to provide education and support to other members.
“Our council meetings are a space for members to go and talk about what they’re experiencing, their problems, concerns or needs,” Suprena says. “Sometimes members want one-on-one sessions, but other times, some people will talk about their needs to the whole group because they want to help others having the same problem.”
Reducing Stigma and Building Trust
One of the most important parts of her role as member outreach coordinator, Suprena says, is being a listening ear and a consistent presence.
“Part of my job in building a trusting relationship with members is to listen,” she says. “After that, I make sure they know that I will be working with them until their problem, question or concern is resolved. I can’t guarantee it will always be the answer they want to hear, but that is ok. They were able to have their voice heard.”
An important aspect of this, Suprena explains, involves reducing the stigma that many members feel about their poor oral health or about being on Medicaid. Many are also unaware that they even have access to these benefits.
“There’s a stigma in small towns, and the perceived stigma of being o Medicaid makes it harder,” she says. “We work hard to make people feel welcome, so they don’t feel ashamed or judged for what kind of coverage or dental issues they have.”
That often builds trust, as member outreach coordinators continue to follow up and listen to the patients’ experience. Rather than just handing them off to a provider, they make sure that the patients are getting the care and treatment they need.
“The most important thing sometimes is just to be heard,” says Suprena.
Kelly and her family are one example. Suprena can think of many others, including one patient who is deaf and relies on reading lips.
The patient struggled recently with her dentist when she couldn’t see his mouth through his face mask to read lips. Suprena worked with the patient and talked with dentists until she found a provider who was willing to use a type of face mask with clear plastic in front of the mouth so that the patient could read the dentists’ lips and feel more comfortable.
Educating Members About the Systemic Connection to Oral Health
Getting members who do not have a history of good experiences with oral health to feel more comfortable seeking dental care starts with building that trust, but education is important, too.
Suprena and her team spend a significant amount of time providing education and resources about everything from what to expect at the dentist, to what healthy habits look like and why oral health is important to overall health.
“With what we know now about the systemic oral health relationship, it’s more important than ever that patients are informed and get the services they need to improve their overall health,” Suprena says. “Opening that door for someone, to get them started with regular medical and dental visits, can change the course of their overall health and happiness for the rest of their lives.”
It’s not an easy door to open. But when it does, it creates a path to a better future.
“My hope is that if someone gets the care that they need, they will know that they are important. They need that,” Suprena says. “We as a society need that.”