By Devin Blake Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service Published Nov 24, 2022 at 5:01 PM

Ascension Seton Dental Services, part of the nonprofit Ascension health care system, has opened a new urgent care location on the South Side and will be opening another one on the North Side to provide services for children and adults who are uninsured and underinsured.

Ascension St. Francis Hospital houses the new South Side location at 3267 S. 16th St. The clinic opened on Sept. 22.

Securing these new clinic spaces is “a great opportunity for us to help those in most need … the North and South Side of the city seem to have some of the biggest discrepancies in access to care,” said Charles Kosowski, dentist at Ascension Seton Dental Services.

In these parts of the city, “dentist offices are sparse. The purpose of our clinics is to cut that gap and try to provide access all over town,” Kosowski added. 

When it comes to oral care, Milwaukee County exists in what’s known as a Health Professional Shortage Area, or HPSA, an area that has either a partial or a full shortage of specific types of providers.

Oral care in surrounding regions is similarly hard to come by.

More than 60 counties out of 72 in the state qualify as an HPSA for dental providers, said Jenna Linden, oral health program leader at Children’s Health Alliance of Wisconsin.

This shortage limits the ability for Milwaukee residents to get dental care in situations when it is urgent, which is particularly relevant in the case of young children, said Lindsay Deinhammer, project manager for the oral health initiative at Children’s Alliance.

“They don’t always verbalize right away that they’re having pain or aren’t able to verbalize that they’re having pain,” Deinhammer said. “And so it’s not until it becomes more apparent that their parents will seek care at that point.” Children’s Alliance is housed within Children’s Wisconsin and focuses on child health initiatives and partners with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

Ascension’s previous South Side location on Historic Mitchell Street faced challenges, with patients often going to some lengths to get an appointment.

“We would open doors at 7:30, and we would have people standing outside at a quarter to 7,” said Robert Ramerez, director of community clinic operations at Ascension Wisconsin.

These new locations will expand Ascension’s ability to serve these patients.

Outreach Community Health Centers now houses a mobile dental clinic at its North Side location, but a permanent clinic is expected to open later this month.

Helping patients

The goal of these urgent care clinics is to get patients out of a dental-related crisis.

“Pain is the number one issue,” Kosowski said.

Swelling, sores, bleeding and tooth decay are other common reasons to seek urgent care. 

By addressing acute issues, Ascension’s dentists work to restore a base level of oral health so patients can then pursue more routine or preventive care at other low-cost or free clinics. 

“I want their mouths to be the last thing they think about,” Kosowski said. 

Taking care of one’s oral health is crucial to maintaining overall health. Adults with poor oral health are more likely to develop heart conditions, diabetes, respiratory problems and certain cancers, among other issues.

There is particular risk to pregnant mothers, who can be expected to have preterm babies or babies born with low birth weights when they experience poor oral health, Kosowski said.

Healthy development of young and school-aged children can also be impaired when they suffer from pain or swelling, which has been especially evident in Milwaukee. Untreated oral pain is the leading reason children miss school in Milwaukee Public Schools, said Kosowski.

Problems in one part of the mouth can sometimes spread to other parts of the mouth, or even other parts of the body – sometimes with tragic consequences.

Deamonte Driver was a 12-year-old boy in Maryland with a bacterial infection that started as a tooth abscess but ultimately spread to his brain, leading to his death in 2007.

Driver’s death could have been prevented with a straightforward, low-cost tooth extraction, but his family was not able to get him care because they had no insurance.

Driver’s death, in particular, has served as a grim reminder to dentists and oral health care professionals about the dire need to expand care.

“It was a really important catalyst to move a lot of this work forward and try to increase dental care access,” Linden said.

How to get dental help

People can also learn about how to get an appointment by calling 2-1-1 or through Ascension’s website.

Calls to the clinic, Ramerez said, are always preferred, though.

The clinic at Ascension St. Francis is open Monday and Wednesday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The number to call is (414) 383-3220. 

The clinic at Outreach Community Health Centers, scheduled to open this month, is located at 210 W. Capitol Drive and will be open Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The number to call is (414) 727-6320.