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Public Health Rep. 2012 May-Jun; 127(Suppl 2): 65–72.
PMCID: PMC3314345

Increasing Access to Oral Health Care for People Living with HIV/AIDS in Rural Oregon

Jill Jones, MS,a,b Mahyar Mofidi, DMD, PhD (CDR, U.S. Public Health Service),c Helene Bednarsh, RDH, MPH,d Alan Gambrell, MPubAff,e and Carol R. Tobias, MMHSf


Access to oral health care for people living with HIV/AIDS is a severe problem. This article describes the design and impact of an Innovations in Oral Health Care Initiative program, funded through the Health Resources and Services Administration HIV/AIDS Bureau's Special Projects of National Significance (SPNS) program, that expanded oral health-care services for these individuals in rural Oregon. From April 2007 to August 2010, 473 patients received dental care (exceeding the target goal of 410 patients) and 153 dental hygiene students were trained to deliver oral health care to HIV-positive patients. The proportion of patients receiving oral health care increased from 10% to 65%, while the no-show rate declined from 40% to 10%. Key implementation components were leveraging SPNS funding and services to create an integrated delivery system, collaborations that resulted in improved service delivery systems, using dental hygiene students to deliver oral health care, enhanced care coordination through the services of a dental case manager, and program capacity to adjust to unanticipated needs.

People living with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) (PLWHA) report high rates of unmet oral health-care needs and low utilization of oral health services.13 These longstanding problems, together with weakened immune systems, put many PLWHA at risk for oral diseases and compromise their well-being.46 Consequences of poor oral health may interfere with HIV medication treatment and accelerate disease progression.7

The discrepancy between unmet oral health needs of PLWHA and their dental utilization is largely explained by financial barriers to care, as many PLWHA live at or below the poverty level.8,9 Many lack dental insurance or are underinsured, and those with Medicaid coverage report persistent difficulty finding a participating dentist.1,10,11

The dental delivery system is also an impediment to oral health care.12 The system works well for those who are healthy, have financial resources, and can use oral health services during traditional hours.13 But this model does not work as well for many PLWHA who find services difficult to navigate because of comorbid health conditions and life challenges. Other barriers include HIV-related stigma, fear of dental treatment, insufficient awareness of the importance of oral health care, negative provider attitudes, and providers inadequately trained in providing oral health care to HIV-positive patients.4,12,14,15

The Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program (hereafter, Ryan White Program), a federal program administered by the HIV/AIDS Bureau of the Health Resources and Services Administration, fills some gaps in care experienced by PLWHA, including oral health care.12,16 In 2006, the HIV/AIDS Bureau's Special Projects of National Significance program launched the Innovations in Oral Health Care Initiative (hereafter, Oral Health Initiative). The purpose of the five-year project was to develop innovative, replicable, and sustainable delivery systems to provide oral health care to PLWHA in urban and rural settings. The Oregon Rural Alliance of Dental Leadership (hereafter, Rural Alliance), a partnership among three organizations to improve access to oral health care in rural Oregon, was one of the participating demonstration sites. This article describes the Rural Alliance model of care, program outcomes, and factors associated with program implementation and potential replication.


Delivering health-care services in a large rural area is fraught with challenges that are unique to nonurban life, including long distances to travel and few providers. This is the context for the Rural Alliance program that brought oral health care to PLWHA residing in a rural service area of more than 63,000 square miles (approximately the size of Florida) that contains 35% of Oregon's population. The Rural Alliance provides services and clinical training in this vast area through a dental hygiene school and satellite clinics, and by using a dental case manager position to help clients access services.


The Rural Alliance was hosted by HIV Alliance in Eugene, Oregon, an AIDS service organization founded in 1994 to provide HIV prevention and education, HIV case management, and social services. HIV Alliance and its two main partners provided the skills and services necessary to bring oral health care to this large rural area—dental expertise, liability insurance, staff, facility space, a source of reimbursement, and provider training. The nature of the partner relationships was formal, with written contracts between partners. Community Health Centers of Lane County, a federally qualified health center (FQHC) with existing dental services, provided a dentist with 30 years of general practice experience. The dentist served as a consultant and provided clinical services and expertise, as well as tort protection for all employees. The FQHC requested an annual contract with HIV Alliance. Lane Community College (LCC) provided dental hygiene and dental assisting students, hygiene faculty, staff, and space for the provision of oral health care. LCC and HIV Alliance signed a five-year contract, which was reviewed annually. Development of the partnerships among the three agencies was established prior to the receipt of the Oral Health Initiative grant. The dental director at the FQHC was instrumental in pulling the three agencies together for the collaboration and provision of oral health-care services. In addition, the Northwest AIDS Education and Training Center (AETC), the Ryan White Program's HIV/AIDS provider training center for the region, provided HIV oral health education to providers and staff associated with the program.

Several structures were established to improve and maintain efficiencies, including a planning council with representatives from each partner to monitor the progress of program implementation and outcomes. The planning council also developed a business plan to provide a framework for the program and sustain the program beyond the demonstration period. In addition, a continuous quality improvement team was established to conduct dental chart reviews, review patient satisfaction surveys, and make recommendations for adjustments to the dental program.

Population served

According to surveillance data, 718 PLWHA live in the Rural Alliance service area.17 From April 2007 to August 2010, the Rural Alliance treated a total of 473 patients (65% of their possible target population, Table 1).

Table 1.
People living with HIV/AIDS and receiving Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program case-management services in southern Oregon, by county, as of June 2005

Service delivery

Clinic sites.

In April 2007, the Rural Alliance began providing services at the LCC dental hygiene clinic, shuttling patients to the clinic from remote locations. The shuttle system turned out to be a costly and time-consuming process. The Rural Alliance assessed alternatives and determined that facilities in outlying areas were available with the capacity and willingness to host satellite clinics. The Rural Alliance opened two clinics within dental assisting programs at other locations in the state to bring oral health services closer to clients in remote areas. Rather than transporting patients to a centralized clinic, the Rural Alliance began to transport dental clinicians and support staff to these satellite clinics during the second year, thus helping meet patient needs and reducing transportation costs. Collectively, the three sites had 31 dental operatories.


The original model called for a mobile van to transport patients from distant areas to the central clinic. Although this model was altered through the creation of satellite clinics, transportation was still a concern in the vast rural area. Program staff helped individuals purchase bus or train tickets to come in for services or provided gas cards and hotel rooms for individuals who had to travel long distances and chose to receive as much treatment as possible during the course of one or two days.

Services provided.

The LCC clinic used 12 to 18 dental chairs per session, and the satellite clinic sites used six dental chairs per session. Each session lasted three and a half hours, serving one patient per chair. Dental hygiene students provided a complete medical history review, radiographic assessment, comprehensive periodontal assessment, nonsurgical periodontal therapy, and routine cleanings. They also developed home care and prevention plans and provided patient education on dry mouth, dental decay, and gum disease. Due to advances in Oregon dental hygiene licensure, dental hygiene students were also able to place fillings previously prepared by a dentist at the LCC site. Staff dentists provided examinations, restorative services, and extractions.


The operatories were staffed by dental hygiene and dental assisting students, hygiene faculty, and dentists. The Figure describes the roles of each practitioner. A total of 153 LCC dental hygiene students participated in the Rural Alliance program during a four-year period, providing approximately 1,800 hours of direct clinical services to PLWHA. LCC also had 10 dental providers who served as attending faculty and service providers. Staff members were diverse and included men and women, people from a variety of racial/ethnic backgrounds, and people from various socioeconomic backgrounds. Spanish-speaking staff provided care, translation services, and clerical support.

Descriptive roles of each practitioner, HIV/AIDS Bureau's SPNS Oral Health Initiative—Oregon Rural Alliance of Dental Leadership, April 2007 to November 2010

The original program model included a part-time dental case manager to assist with patient recruitment, scheduling, and arranging transportation. Within six months of program start-up, the no-show rate was 40%, calculated as the total number of “late cancellation” or “confirmed, but no show” visits for Oral Health Initiative patients divided by the total number of Oral Health Initiative patient time slots. This rate was a clear sign that clients needed help navigating the dental system. Thus, the position of dental case manager was expanded, which was not anticipated under the initial Oral Health Initiative grant. The full-time dental case manager took on the additional responsibilities of tracking referrals, following up on no-shows, educating clients about oral health, and working to retain clients in dental care. The dental case manager also facilitated communication between clients and providers and reinforced oral health information communicated by dental staff. The dental case manager established ongoing relationships with clients, was a familiar face at dental appointments, and could answer questions and/or get information to the client regarding their care, thus reducing anxiety regarding dental procedures or providers.

Education and clinical training

The education and training of dental hygiene students included didactic courses, presentations, and clinical rotations. The curriculum was revised to incorporate topics such as HIV pharmacology and oral pathology. LCC established distance-learning sites for dental hygiene students, enabling increased numbers of dental hygiene students to be educated on oral health care for HIV-positive individuals. In addition, clinicians from the Northwest AETC provided semiannual presentations to LCC students, faculty, and staff about HIV and HIV oral manifestations.

Dental hygiene training also included direct patient care. LCC hygiene students provided a wide range of services, including the placement of fillings. Due to space and time limitations, dental hygiene students did not place restorations at the two satellite clinics, but did provide diagnostic and preventive services.


During the course of the demonstration, several challenges were encountered, resulting in new interventions to address emerging needs. The establishment of satellite clinics and the expanded role of the dental case manager became core components of the service delivery model. Other program adjustments included the expansion of clinic sessions and hours, the hiring of a denturist, curriculum changes, and the development and implementation of a sustainability plan.

A challenge in implementing the dental case-management intervention was finding an individual who was knowledgeable about both case-management services and dental care. Because this person had to help clients navigate a number of nonfinancial barriers to oral health care, having prior experience in HIV case management, being familiar with community resources, and understanding mental health and substance abuse issues were important. However, lack of a dental background made it difficult for the dental case manager to communicate effectively with clients about dental care, treatment plans, and dental terminology. Experience and education helped the dental case manager to overcome this challenge. The program has since developed materials on oral health education information for HIV case managers.

To provide continuity of care at times that were convenient for clients, the Rural Alliance modified its clinic schedules, even adding clinics during the summer when students were not typically in school. Evening clinic hours were added to meet the needs of patients outside traditional appointment times. The majority of clinic hours were scheduled in the afternoons to accommodate challenges faced by PLWHA who were sick or had nausea in the mornings due to their medication regimens.

A denturist was added to the program in response to the needs of edentulous patients (those without teeth). Approximately 30% of the clients receiving care in the dental clinic needed full or partial dentures, and utilizing a denturist allowed the dentist more time to concentrate on other complex dental procedures and be available to students.

During the course of the project, student feedback led to a number of curriculum changes to prepare students for their clinical rotations. When the program began, the majority of students expressed reservations about treating PLWHA. An HIV 101 course was developed to address these fears, and attendance was required. Later, students reported difficulty in interpreting clinical laboratory values and understanding their role in treatment and management. As a result, the hygiene program integrated new content into one of its existing courses to address these issues.

Finally, finding the means to sustain a grant-funded program beyond the end of the grant period is a central challenge. The Rural Alliance was creative and resourceful in seeking sustainable funding from both the Ryan White Program and foundation resources. The Ryan White Dental Reimbursement Program defrays a portion of the uncompensated costs associated with providing oral health care to PLWHA that are incurred by institutions with accredited dental educational programs. LCC, as a nonprofit educational institution, was able to apply for and receive funds from this program. These funds will provide compensation for the clinical staff who deliver care and also allow more clinical, hands-on training opportunities for hygienists. The Rural Alliance also successfully applied for funding from Ryan White Part B, funds that go to each state from the federal program, which are used to purchase health and oral health services from providers. These funds will be used to pay for dental assistant time, dentures, the dental case manager, and transportation assistance.


The Rural Alliance exceeded its initial goals for increasing the number of patients served and dental providers trained. The program has also expanded the types of services provided to clients and met the needs of many of its patients and hygiene students.

Population served

Prior to this initiative, HIV Alliance received funding to pay for episodic or emergency dental care for less than 10% of the 718 PLWHA who resided in the service area. The Rural Alliance's original goal was to treat 57% of the total HIV population in the service area, or 410 patients. This target was based on serving 250 patients in the first year and adding 55 patients in each of the next three years. However, in year 4, the Rural Alliance treated 473 patients, exceeding the original target by 15% (Table 2). In addition, while expanding the number of patients served, the Rural Alliance was able to reduce the patient no-show rate from 40% to 10% by August 2010. This reduction was due to a combination of the dental case manager's efforts and other incentives provided by HIV Alliance. HIV Alliance developed a no-show policy, which all clients were required to sign when referred to the dental program. The policy stated that if they missed more than two appointments, they would only be able to access dental care on an emergency basis. HIV case managers also stressed the importance of clients keeping their appointments and provided transportation assistance in the form of bus passes, gas cards, hotel rooms, and rides to the clinic. Finally, the dental clinic arranged appointment times for later in the day to accommodate patient needs.

Table 2.
Service delivery activities provided by the HIV/AIDS Bureau's SPNS Oral Health Initiative—Oregon Rural Alliance of Dental Leadership, April 2007 to November 2010

Services delivered

The Rural Alliance also expanded the types of services provided to clients, resulting in the delivery of more comprehensive care. Sixty-one percent of patients completed treatment plans. To date, 7,976 clinical services have been provided (Table 3). These services included examinations, radiographs, routine cleanings, deep cleanings, fillings, extractions, dentures, crowns, and bridges. Each year, the number of services delivered has increased, reflecting the growing capacity of the program to deliver care.

Table 3.
Patient services provided by the HIV/AIDS Bureau's SPNS Oral Health Initiative—Oregon Rural Alliance of Dental Leadership, April 2007 to November 2010

Patient satisfaction

The Rural Alliance conducted patient satisfaction surveys to assess patient needs and expectations regarding dental services. Patients reported that students were professional and concerned with their comfort. They noted that students were prepared and took the time to explain procedures, the time that would be involved, and the number of appointments needed to complete a treatment plan. Patients also had the opportunity to write in comments at the end of the survey, including the following statements:

  • “Thank you for doing a job without [discriminating against] people with HIV and AIDS.”
  • “Before I found out about this program, I gave up on my teeth. Every time you work on my teeth, it makes me feel better.”
  • “I am very grateful for this program, without which I would only receive emergency dental work, which I still could not pay for.”

Provider training

Student experience was measured using pre- and post-service surveys, interviews, and focus groups. Students reported that they were better prepared to provide oral health care as a result of didactic courses and clinical rotations. The AETC presentations were viewed as a valuable resource that reinforced the content of online courses. The HIV 101 course that was added to the curriculum, in conjunction with hands-on experiences in providing care, contributed to increased confidence and a more positive attitude toward caring for PLWHA. Such growth was illustrated by the following comments:

  • “After working on a few HIV-positive patients, I realize it is just like working on any other patient.”
  • “I was a little uncomfortable at first, then I realized that we take proper precautions with every patient (HIV-positive or not), so as long as we follow protocol, we will be fine.”
  • “Seeing patients in clinic and learning about their oral health needs makes me realize there is lack of dental care access everywhere.”


The Oral Health Initiative was designed to support innovative, replicable, and sustainable programs to expand oral health services for PLWHA. The Rural Alliance has met these criteria in rural Oregon, expanding access to comprehensive and sustainable oral health care. Several factors contributed to the success of this innovative model of care: (1) accessing funding from multiple Ryan White Program sources, (2) involving multiple partners, (3) engaging dental hygiene students, (4) using a dental case manager, and (5) being responsive to unanticipated needs.

The importance of leveraging multiple Ryan White Program funding sources to sustain the delivery of care cannot be overstated. The Oral Health Initiative helped the program establish a dental clinic and hire a project coordinator. The Ryan White Dental Reimbursement Program created an ongoing source of revenue for oral health services. Although this program is available to accredited dental hygiene education institutions, LCC is the only one that receives such funds. Ryan White Part B funding will fund the dental case manager, cover denture costs, and pay for transportation. At a time when state governments are slashing adult dental benefits from their Medicaid programs, the importance of the Ryan White Program as an oral health safety net cannot be overstated.

The cornerstone of the care model presented in this article is partnership. The partnership among HIV Alliance, LCC, and Community Health Centers of Lane County was based on the recognition that no one entity could effectively tackle the problem of inadequate access to dental care. The partners built on existing strengths to bring to the table key resources, such as expertise in oral health-care delivery, training, and case management, as well as clinical infrastructure, providers, and access to liability insurance. This collaboration experienced some challenges early on, underestimating the time needed to identify and assign roles and responsibilities. Extensive discussion and effort were needed to reach a consensus on key issues, but in the end, these challenges helped to strengthen the collaboration.

The incorporation of dental hygiene students into the model of care is innovative and has important implications. First, the lack of dental care for PLWHA is aggravated, in part, by the limited number of dentists treating this population. Dental hygienists are poised to alleviate this shortage by filling the workforce gaps.18 Without these students, most of the Rural Alliance patients would not have received oral health care. Second, recent efforts have focused on training and using students in the oral health care of PLWHA, but few have targeted dental hygiene students.16 The dental hygienist is a critical member of the collaborative oral health-care team in early diagnosis of the disease and later management of oral health problems for PLWHA. The hygienist may be the first provider to detect oral conditions related to HIV and can assist in the referral process in obtaining early diagnosis and appropriate primary medical care.19 The hygiene program presents an opportune starting point for training a knowledgeable, caring, and skillful cadre of dental hygienists capable of providing oral health preventive and therapeutic care for PLWHA.

The dental case manager fulfilled an important role in enhancing access and reducing barriers by helping to reduce missed appointments. This finding is consistent with research documenting the positive impact of HIV case managers on connecting patients to and retaining them in primary care20 and preliminary data that suggest case managers play an important role in client outreach and retention in oral health care.21,22 Medicaid programs have also reported that case-management services improve the use of dental services and increase treatment compliance.23

Finally, flexibility and responsiveness helped to fill gaps that otherwise would have limited the program's impact. The experience at the LCC dental clinic is illustrative. As the program began providing services, it became apparent that one centralized location did not meet the needs of clients in the large service area. Satellite clinics, which were established to solve this problem, not only improved dental utilization but also reduced transportation costs incurred by clients and the program. Likewise, it allowed the program to set up rotations of hygiene students that increased their direct care experiences. Other examples of tailoring interventions to the needs of various groups included expanding clinic hours to accommodate more clients and revising the curriculum to better prepare dental hygiene students for working with PLWHA.


This program and study are generalizable and replicable in other settings, particularly those that host community colleges with space that may be underutilized. Successful replication of the rural model described in this article in other settings involves considering several key features: building and maintaining community-academic partnerships, training dental hygiene students to provide workforce capacity, and having a dental case manager. Transferability of the program also depends on tapping into revenue streams, such as Ryan White Program funding; drawing from external resources, such as AETCs, to provide educational opportunities; and establishing internal structures, such as planning teams that include representation from partnering organizations.


This study was supported by grant #H97HA07526-03-00 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration. This grant is funded through the HIV/AIDS Bureau's Special Projects of National Significance program. The contents of this article are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the funding agencies or the U.S. government.

This study was approved by the Western Institutional Review Board (WIRB) in Olympia, Washington (study #1088148, WIRB pro #20070336, investigation #130810).


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