Dr. Van Anh La first got hooked on community healthcare in Hawaii. After graduating from the University of Washington’s dental program, she moved to the Islands to pursue a certificate in Advanced Education in General Dentistry . An experience at a community health center on Oahu convinced her that she’d found her calling. “I’ve always been interested in offering community health care that is as good as you would get in a private setting,” says La. “There shouldn’t be a discrepancy in care between whoever can afford it and those who cannot.”
These days, she’s putting that belief into practice as one of two dentists treating patients at the Neighborcare Health Dental at Providence St. Peter Hospital Clinic in Olympia. The clinic is a community health center that serves walk-ins, referrals from Providence St. Peter’s emergency center and patients seeking routine dental care. Although the practice is busy, the clinic is accepting new patients.
While many private dental practices have seen dramatic drops in patient volume during COVID-19, demand has increased at the Providence clinic. Part of the reason is affordability. Neighborcare accepts Medicare and Medicaid dental insurance and offers a sliding fee discount, based on family size and income. “Providence has a lot of cases coming into the ER every day and whether people are insured or not, we’ll see them,” says Clinic Administrator Dina Gorodyuk.
The most common issues the staff deals with are trauma from accidents and infections. “We see people who have either broken teeth recently or a long time ago,” says La. “We have some patients with wisdom teeth that were never taken out and are now infected and compromising their airway. A lot of people have infections that have gotten too severe to be treated successfully with antibiotics only.”
Several appointments are held open each day for such emergencies. The clinic is open from 6:45 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Tuesday through Friday and can accommodate up to 20 patients per day, even with extra precautions due to COVID-19. “Our facility is a little bit bigger than some other clinics and we have more room in between chairs to for patients be seen on a regular schedule,” says La. “Between Dr. George Holzer and me and the seven chairs, we have enough capacity to space our patients out evenly and safely.”
The clinic has continued to operate throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, although it has made modifications to ensure patient and staff safety. Everyone who enters the building has their temperature taken and the staff limits the number of people in the waiting room at any given time. After research showed that rinsing with hydrogen peroxide neutralizes the oral cavity for up to several hours, the team instituted the practice with every patient.
For La, the clinic has been an opportunity to continue applying the lessons learned during her tenure in Hawaii. “I appreciated the fact that in community health, I got to help people immediately and provide long-term care for people who otherwise didn’t have access to it,” she explains. “It’s something that keeps me on my toes and lets me meet a lot of interesting people and help them in different ways, whether through emergency care or patient education.”
She was surprised to discover how many patients lacked basic oral health care knowledge and valued the time spent training with specialists every week during her time in Hawaii. “It made us all well-rounded as clinicians,” she says. “That set of skills is really important to offer the community.”
Once she returned to the mainland, La worked in private practice gaining experience in surgery and implants, but she missed community health and the opportunity to provide education. “I was interested in working somewhere with a residency or some sort of higher education and several of my friends work for Neighborcare,” she says. “From what they told me about the organization, I felt it aligned with my values. It’s been a good match.”
Gorodyuk has worked for Neighborcare for 25 years and shares a passion for community health. “It’s been so interesting to meet people from different countries and different walks of life and help them solve their problems,” she says. “Sometimes we get people who come to us for many years and we become very close.”
Eventually, the clinic will include a year-long residency program for new dentists who want to expand their knowledge base and have more interaction with patients before entering private practice. It has been slightly delayed due to COVID-19. La will be on the faculty of the residency program once it begins.
Neighborcare also offers dental residency training at its other clinics in Seattle through New York University.
To learn more about the clinic or make an appointment visit the Neighborcare website or call 360-456-8844.
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