Getting the healthcare you need in a small, rural town can be difficult. But the Dahl Memorial Clinic in Skagway is hoping to make it a little easier to access things like dental care and prescription medications. A new federal grant will help pay for the expanded services.
When Juneau dentist Jared Erickson first started traveling to the Skagway clinic as a visiting provider, he noticed that many of his patients were in serious need of help.
“There was a build-up of emergency dental care at that time,” Erickson said. “We helped clean up quite a few abscesses and infected teeth.”
Erickson says, when people have to travel to get healthcare, they sometimes put off small things, which then turn into more dire problems. After five years of making regular visits to Skagway, Erickson says the dental emergencies have gone way down. But he’s still pretty booked during the week-long trips he makes about every other month.
“They are very busy, we normally recommend you try to secure an appointment a month or so in advance,” said Clinic Executive Director Shelly O’Boyle.
She says one reason the clinic board wanted to improve access to dental care is because it’s something residents asked for in a 2014 Health Needs Assessment the clinic conducted.
“One of our goals here is to bring the services to the community so people don’t have to fly out of town to receive those services,” O’Boyle said. “And dental was one of the top services the community asked for.”
About a third of respondents reporting not receiving a dental check-up in the past year. Fifty percent of respondents said they seek dental care outside of the clinic — in the Lower 48, Whitehorse or Juneau. About half of them also said they had difficulty getting a dental appointment when they wanted or needed one at the Skagway clinic.
O’Boyle hopes a new, approximately $230,000 grant from the Federal Health Resources and Services Administration, will help fix that problem. Dr. Erickson and his associate dentist Dr. Nolan Davis plan to increase visits to Skagway. And, adult patients who qualify for the clinic’s sliding fee scale will receive dental care at a discounted price.
“We do have patients who are currently on the sliding fee program that have heard about the dental program and are very excited,” O’Boyle said. “I’ve had patients state that it’s been over five years since they’ve had a cleaning because they couldn’t afford it. So this will directly impact those individuals, and that’s what we fight for.”
The new grant will also expand Skagway’s prescription dispensary. Right now, the clinic’s dispensary can give patients their initial prescription, but Skagway residents have had to rely on mail-order refills.
“I think those individuals that live here year round in the winter that have been in the situation where their medication couldn’t get flown in, you’re in a bad situation,” O’Boyle said. “Any disruption in medication is not ideal, and then there’s those individuals in the community who have serious medical concerns, and it’s a serious health concern for our provider and our clinic.”
With the grant, the clinic plans to hire a dispensary technician. The clinic will also be able to expand the amount of medications in-house and offer local refills to patients.
Along with the dispensary technician, the grant will pay for an IT position. O’Boyle says that person will run an online patient portal which people can use to communicate with providers, schedule appointments, view prescriptions and more. Both of the contract positions need approval from the Skagway Borough Assembly before the clinic posts the jobs listings.
The expanded dental, dispensary and IT services are set to kick off over the next few months.