Bassett Healthcare Network's Pilot Program to Reduce Unnecessary Emergency Dental Visits Earns National Attention

Dawn Helstrom, Community Dental Health Coordinator (CDHC)Bassett Healthcare Network has gained national attention with an innovative community health initiative that is successfully connecting patients to dental homes, diminishing unnecessary emergency department visits, and providing resources to underserved populations.

Bassett's community dental health navigation program, a multidisciplinary care approach, is a novel pilot that started at Little Falls Hospital and is effectively integrating community health navigation with emergency medicine and oral surgery. The program, at its core, dismantles the traditionally-perceived concept that dentistry is a specialty separate from a patient's medical care experience. Instead, community dental health navigation acknowledges oral health as an essential component of a patient's overall medical needs and works to address social determinants and other complex dynamics that create barriers to patients establishing a dental home.

"Community dental health coordinators (CDHCs) are completely revolutionizing how dental care is delivered in underserved communities," says Laurence Pfeiffer, MD, oral and maxillofacial surgeon at FoxCare Dental Associates. "This model of proactive care and outreach has been shown to reduce health care costs by keeping patients out of the emergency department and in dental practices where they are much better served."

CDHCs work to mitigate elements that may produce obstacles to an individual landing in a medical home, including low provider-to-patient ratios, inadequate numbers of providers who accept certain insurance plans, lack of dental knowledge, poor transportation access, geographic challenges, addiction, food insecurity, child care issues, and overall poverty. Referrals come from emergency department patients who present with dental-related issues like infections, facial trauma, non-restorable teeth, severe pain, and lesions.

"Many people seek dental care in an emergency room setting because they have no other choice," explains Dawn Helstrom, CDHC at Bassett (pictured at top right). "I assist patients by navigating them through our intricate beneficiary health system. As a dental hygienist with more than 40 years of experience, I have the knowledge and capabilities to empower them to help themselves, as well as the community as a whole."

As part of Helstrom's transition from clinical dental care to community dental health navigation, she completed specialized education through the American Dental Association (ADA), New York State Dental Association (NYSDA), and the Henry Shein Scholarship program - an initiative to support dental hygienists as they seek CDHC certification. Helstrom attended Rio Salado Community College in Tempe, Arizona.

"Rio Salado has an exemplary CDHC program," says Helstrom. "The year-long cirriculum path expanded my knowledge of the community health worker field and prepared me for the work I now accomplish every day."

Helstrom's fresh area of expertise is proving to be successful as the program continues to expand across Bassett Healthcare Network and the state. "Bassett Healthcare Network has created the opportunity to be one of the first health systems in New York State to assist in the collaboration of medical and dental as integrated components of overall body health," she says. "We have excellent medical providers who now have a system in place to reach out to a CDHC to link medical and dental visits."

"This continued integration of CDHCs will allow us to improve health literacy, reduce emergency care for dental-related issues and link New Yorkers to health homes across the state," says Betsy Bray, director of health affairs at the NYSDA. "Prevention and early intervention is key to reducing oral health disparities. We are excited to continue working with Bassett Healthcare Network as they are the first to embrace this workforce model with a dedicated position focused on this important work."

"Our communities have a tremendous need for this service and the NYSDA has promoted the growth of CDHC positions around the state," she says. "I am grateful to be part of this amazing and innovative solution to dental home access."