Dental school expands care in rural eastern NC

Residents of eastern North Carolina have better access to dental care thanks to the opening of a dental clinic in Hyde County and a program to provide oral health care and dental hygiene education to schoolchildren in Jones County.

The Hyde County Outreach Clinic opens once a month in the rear of the post office building in Swan Quarter.

Once a month in the Hyde County town of Swan Quarter, a few rooms in the back of the post office serve as the area’s only oral health care location for miles around. It opened in April 2022, and students and faculty from the ECU School of Dental Medicine have treated patients from at least seven counties.

Hyde, Tyrrell and Camden counties — all in the east — have no practicing dentists.

Program partners include the Hyde County Health Department, Hyde County government and county commissioners, Ocracoke Health Center and Engelhard Medical Center.

In 2019, the Anonymous Trust — a philanthropic group that aims to support rural and underserved communities — gave ECU $144,000 for portable dental equipment and personnel to launch the clinic. Last December, the Hearst Foundations — national philanthropic resources for organizations working in the fields of culture, education, health and social services — approved $100,000 for the dental school to provide dental care to underserved, uninsured and low-income rural patients.

The clinic has proven a popular, off-the-beaten path option for students. Fourth-year student Sung Baek of Indian Trail said caring for patients in Hyde County is like looking out for family.

“This means everything to me,” Baek said. “I kind of grew up in a similar situation in a rural county, and my parents were going through a lot of similar situations that I’ve seen in patients here. For me, it’s just about giving back and just imagining that’s my mom or my dad — and I would want the same thing for them, to have access to dental care.”

ECU School of Dental Medicine hygienist Gina Hamilton uses a portable X-ray unit during patient Santana McCoy’s appointment at the school’s clinic in Hyde County.

In Jones County, the School-Based Oral Health Prevention Program is seeing students at Trenton Elementary/Jones Senior High School as well as Maysville, Pollocksville and Comfort elementary schools. Participants receive clinical services that include radiographs, fluoride varnish, sealants, silver diamine fluoride, comprehensive and periodic exams, and teledentistry exams.

Since the program began at the end of February, 120 children have been seen.

The program is open to all Jones County children, regardless of insurance coverage, said Rachel Stewart, project manager and public health dental hygienist at the School of Dental Medicine. Children also receive yearly oral hygiene education and oral hygiene supplies, she added.

The program is jointly funded by the BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina Foundation and the Duke Endowment. It’s led by Drs. Wanda Wright, Michael Webb and Vanessa Pardi of the ECU dental faculty.