MACHIAS — This year, several people crossed the border from Canada to take advantage of the annual free dental clinic in Machias.
Although Canada offers universal health care, apparently dental is not included, said Jen Wood, dental program assistant with the Washington County Children’s Program, which runs the clinic.
Of course, most clients came from Maine, including some who made the nearly two-hour trip from Bangor — traveling about 85 miles one-way. Many drove at least an hour from locations such as Sullivan and Calais, Wood said.
The clinic, sponsored by the Northeast Dental Foundation and Henry Schein Cares Foundation, brings about 35 volunteer dental professionals and students from New York University College of Dentistry to Machias, where they provide dental care over the course of a week.
Wood said this year’s clinic, which took place April 8-13 with a day off April 11, served approximately 200 adults. Appointments were not available, so an average of 60 walk-in patients per day were seen as time permitted. Since the clinic started, Wood estimates it has seen about 2,000 adult patients.
“People come back, so there may be more patient visits than that,” she said.
Though many adults take advantage of the clinic, it is primarily focused on children in Washington County. Data shows it has made a difference.
When the first clinic took place in 2010, visiting dentists saw tooth decay in 40 percent of the youngest patients, said Teresa Alley, the children’s program oral health coordinator.
“Now we’re at less than the national average of 20 percent,” she said. “We’re excited to see what the future holds.”
Over the course of nine years, the clinic has seen approximately 250 children annually, many of them more than once. Overall, Alley estimates the clinic has served a total of 1,800 different children.
In addition to receiving exams and any necessary treatments, the children are learning how to care for their teeth and to be comfortable with a dentist.
“Some students come by school bus and they see this as a field trip,” said Alley, noting that the majority of regulars come from six area schools. “This isn’t just a weeklong event. We’re following those children throughout the year.”
Alley and Wood visit the participating schools, giving checkups, handing out toothpaste and toothbrushes and reinforcing the need for good oral hygiene.
“We’d love to have each of these children have a relationship with their own dentist. But that’s just not possible,” Alley said.
A number of barriers to care exist in Washington County. Chief among them is finances. Another is transportation. Alley remembers one child who had a toothache for nearly a year before he was seen at the clinic, and she remembers the reasons why.
“We can go to the dentist or we can get a new wheel on the car,” she said. “The barriers are big.”
Even when families have dependable vehicles, work schedules can make it difficult to get dental care.
“By transporting kids during school hours, we’ve removed the barrier,” she said.
Another barrier is the availability of dentists — or lack thereof.
Nationally, an average of 61 dentists serve every 100,000 in population, according to the American Dental Association website. That means on average nationally, one dentist is available for about every 1,600 people.
Washington County currently has just eight dentists. Two of them are located on the Passamaquoddy reservation in Pleasant Point, and are not open to the public, Alley said. Washington County’s population is just under 33,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That means Washington County has one dentist for about every 4,100 residents.
Washington County is also quite large, covering 3,257 square miles, according to the Census Bureau.
“Our county is almost the size of Connecticut,” Alley said. Even those who have transportation and funds may not be able to take the time required to travel to an available dentist.
Those who need any kind of specialized dental care have to travel to Ellsworth, a trip that can take more than two hours one-way from places such as Eastport and Lubec.
Wood said the program doesn’t keep any statistics on adult dental health but said the clinic typically performs 400 fillings, 200 extractions and 30 to 40 root canals on adult patients in a week.
“I think we always will be doing emergency care,” Wood said.