Without the proper instruction early in life, children will not form the habits necessary to keep their teeth healthy. Dr. Singhal’s clinic aims to not only clean and maintain healthy teeth, but to teach the kids how to take care of their own teeth.
“If children have cavities and other problems, there are two things. First is their physical status,” said Dr. Singhal, “second is their psychological status. No matter what, if a child loses teeth, the child will be in pain and the child will not be confident.”
Singhal focuses not only on the first, the pain, but also the second. He believes that teeth are important for not just eating the right diet, which includes hard foods that require strong teeth, but also for maintaining self-confidence from a young age.
Singhal said he has seen children only 2 or 3 years old missing front teeth who feel uncomfortable. “So it is not only the adults who feel awkward, emotionally compromised. Even the children feel that way,” Singhal said. And then when they are surrounded by their peers, most notably in school, they feel awkward and out of place. And they have trouble learning.
Poor dental health not only leads to a soft food diet, but also to greater problems in the body. Plaque buildup in the mouth can travel through the bloodstream and clog arteries and veins near the heart. “[Dental health] is very important for systemic problems,” said Singhal. “There is a link.”
Singhal and his staff of four general dentists and two part-time pediatric dentists have a 99.5 percent approval rating with their clientele, as per the surveys each patient fills out. Every patient treated by the clinic is also surveyed about how the service could be made better: by having different hours or being open different days. As it is, the clinic guarantees an appointment within seven days of the client’s call and promises to either warn of a wait or to seat patients immediately upon arrival. In the last year, the clinic had 6,000 patient visits.
Stacy Plummer, a mother of two, said the clinic meets all of her needs, especially when compared to the other dentists she’s seen. “I’ve seen a couple of other dentists and was never satisfied,” Plummer said, “until I came here.”
Plummer has been bringing her two girls to St. Bernard’s Dental Clinic for a year and a half, ever since her baby’s primary care physician, a doctor in the hospital, recommended it. Her baby had to have four teeth removed and caps put in. Plummer said the clinic is great because the dentists teach kids the importance of good dental hygiene.
“My baby, you know,” said Plummer,” before bed she says ‘I’ve got to brush and brush so that my caps will shine!’”
Plummer’s baby is not the only child to benefit from the close partnership between the hospital and the dental clinic. Doctors in the main hospital often recommend Dr. Singhal to their patients. If a doctor thinks that a child’s dental health is deteriorating, they can refer the child to the clinic and the child’s parent can often make an appointment that very day.
People have driven over four hours, from out of state, to be treated by Dr. Singhal. The clinic is widely renowned for its care — and its cost. The clinic is funded in part by the reimbursements it receives from Medicaid, but the rest, about half of the expenses, are covered by private donations. Dr. Singhal calls it a hybrid business model.
St. Bernard’s is located in Englewood, a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood in Chicago’s South Side. Many of the residents are covered by Medicaid, which few dentists accept. Most offices providing these services are out of reach of the families in the neighborhood meaning time off from school and work to go to the dentist.
Without good teeth, children suffer from pain and swelling and inability to chew, which can lead to malnutrition. Dr. Singhal has seen everything from bleeding and missing teeth to diseases that can be life threatening if left untreated. Singhal and his staff feel that it is very important for everyone to have access to this care, regardless of their income bracket.
In a recently released report, the Chicago Dental Society stated that between 2006 and 2011, more than 1 in 4 low-cost dental clinics in the Chicago area closed. “[Low-income patients] have almost nowhere to go,” Dr. Susan Becker Doroshow, the secretary of the dental society, told the Chicago Tribune, “The path for them is already irreversible.”
According to the Chicago Dental Society’s report, Broken Smiles: Restoring Access to Oral Health Care in Chicago and Cook County, there is just one dental clinic in Cook County for every 15,700 children. Thanks to a $1.6 billion cut in the Illinois Medicaid program, adult dental care is limited to emergency tooth extractions. Untreated dental issues, meanwhile, can put people at higher risk for diabetes and heart disease.
As low-cost care disappears, people seeking dental care have limited options with limited income. Dental schools are happy to treat underserved clients, but there is only one school in Chicago. Singhal’s clinic at St. Bernard’s is one of the only remaining links in the dental care safety net.
Dr. Singhal is the founding director of the dental clinic. Started in 2005, it was the brain child of the hospital and Singhal, who already had a background in public health. The hospital had a mobile unit at the time that would drive around to schools and provide children with dental care on the go. But the hospital recognized a bigger need in the community and, together with Dr. Singhal, addressed that need.
The clinic can also address the needs of adults, provided they regularly bring their children to the clinic. The dental clinic has a point system that allows parents to build up credit every time they bring in their children. When the parent has acquired the necessary points, they can receive various kinds of free treatments. One mother even amassed enough points after faithfully bringing her three children for five years for a free root canal.
“She said, ‘Dr. Singhal, your clinic is a Michigan Avenue clinic in a ghetto’,” said Singhal, laughing, “’I feel dignified here, I feel respected here. You pamper me’, that’s what she said.” Dr. Singhal is proud of his patients and proud of his work and that of his colleagues in the clinic. And his patients proudly display his work every time they smile. A plaque given to him by a satisfied patient even reads “Thank you for bringing back my smile.”
By Ellen Garrison
StreetWise Editorial Intern