Volunteers provide more than $1 million in compassionate dental care at the free, four-day event.
| Quick Bites
- The four-day Seattle/King County Clinic is a volunteer-driven event that provides free dental, vision and medical care to those struggling to access and/or afford healthcare.
- This year’s event, held April 27-30 at the Seattle Center, marked the return of dental services to the clinic for the first time since the pandemic.
- All told, this year’s clinic provided more than $2.5 million in dental, vision and medical care to over 3,000 people.
- WSDA members Drs. Brittany Dean, BJ Peterson, Jeff Parrish and Mike Karr served as this year’s dental directors; Drs. Ivy Lin, Betsy Albert and Jung Song served as deputy directors.
Chair upon chair, row after row. For four days in April, the floor of the Exhibition Hall at the Seattle Center was transformed into a massive free health care clinic, where dentists, dental hygienists, dental hygienists, denturists and dental technicians worked like bees in a garden, moving from patient to patient, providing free dental service.
The annual Seattle/King County health care clinic returned to full operations this year, after delaying dental services for three years due to the pandemic. More than 3,500 volunteers provided a host of dental, medical and vision services this year to a racially diverse, economically disadvantaged patient population during the four clinic days.
'An Amazing Event’
As in years past, WSDA played a role as a silver level partner as well as actively promoting the event and encouraging member dentists and their staff to volunteer to provide compassionate care. Originally, the clinic had just two dental directors – WSDA member Drs. Jeff Parrish and Mike Karr. But as the clinic grew over time, it was clear additional leadership was needed to address the scope of patient needs. That’s when Drs. Brittany Dean and BJ Peterson were added. Drs. Ivy Lin, Betsy Albert and Jung Song served as deputy directors, providing additional continuity and points of contact for patients and volunteers at all times.
The clinic also added leads for specific areas within dental care. For example, this year, there were three hygiene leads — all hygienists — who worked to recruit hygienists, ensure they had what they needed, and troubleshoot anything in that area on treatment days.
Dr. Brittany Dean has attended every clinic as a volunteer or leader, and was excited to return this year as a dental director.
“It is amazing to see how much more of a machine this has become – in a good way!” she said. “I really respect the Seattle Center staff who lead the planning for this giant clinic, as they are very conscientious about evaluating and re-evaluating processes and thinking of every eventuality to provide quality and fair care in a way that maintains safety for everyone.”
“It is an amazing event.”
The sheer logistics of the clinic’s operations are a wonder in and of themselves, securing donations of supplies, arranging necessary facilities and equipment, and planning for all of the necessary services to be in place to provide fully functional, high quality dental, medical and vision care. All told, more than 100 organizations contributed to the clinic this year.
A Quality Experience
The patient population also offers a unique snapshot of those seeking care in King County, drawing attendees from more than 150 ZIP codes who spoke 30 different primary languages. About a third of patients reported being unemployed; over 40 percent indicate they have either one full-time job or one part-time job. A small percentage (less than 3 percent) identified as college students.
The clinic does not impose access restrictions as to whether patients have health insurance, though more than 50 percent of attendees say they have no insurance.
“The clinic is further proof to me that the State of Washington lacks a dental safety net for those who absolutely cannot afford dental services,” said Dr. Jeff Parrish, who, after years serving as a clinic director, now serves as a guide to the newer dentists in that role.
“If the state would ‘put their money where their mouth is,’ they’d step up and improve the reimbursement rates so that truly poor people could access care in any dental office in the state. As is, we lose money on every Medicaid patient who walks into our private practice doors, and lots of dentists are not willing or able to do that,” he added. “Dental health should have higher priority than many of the things the state spends money on. Fortunately, there are still lots of great dentists, hygienists, assistants, lab techs, and just plain support folk willing to sacrifice their time and talents to help out when given an opportunity.”
Dean said the clinic’s commitment to providing a quality experience for patients and volunteer dentists is part of what makes the clinic so successful.
“I love that there are no barriers to being a patient here. It can be easy to make judgements about who is ‘worthy’ of free care, but I’ve learned that there are often complex reasons why someone seeks care at our clinic,” she said. “A lot of patients are coming to the dentist for the first time in years and it takes a lot of courage to walk through the doors, but they know that only caring people would volunteer at an event like this,” she added.
“It’s rewarding to me to see the look on a patient’s face when they have something done that they didn’t think was possible for them and it’s clear what a relief that is.”
Compassionate Care Writ Large
Volunteer dentists can work as little or as much as they like at the clinic. Some may opt for just one day, others for a half day, and there are some, like Dean and her dental director colleagues, who dedicate their time and talents for all four days.
“I just love being here,” added Dean. “The clinic is so exhausting and yet so exhilarating, and it feels like I get just the right amount of adrenaline during this week. I always find at least one day to climb up in the top stairs or bleachers and look over the whole floor abuzz with patients and providers,” she said. “It makes me proud and grateful to be a part of Washington’s dental community.”
Even after years of volunteer service with the clinic, Parrish is also still awed by the event.
“Every year as I take a moment and just sit back and look at what thousands of hours of preparation by Seattle Center Staff, most especially Julia Colson, can do, it’s just overwhelming to watch 1,000 volunteers a day work like a well-oiled machine over long days and just try to ‘love on’ folks who either can’t afford care and can’t navigate the system to find care,” he said.
“It’s a testament to vision and execution writ large. I am blessed to have been a part of it from the beginning.”
For more information, please visit seattlecenter.org/skcclinic.
This article originally appeared in Issue 2, 2023 of the WSDA News magazine.