The VCU School of Dentistry has formed a partnership with the Virginia Dental Association and the Virginia Health Care Foundation to provide dental care for the uninsured and underserved populations of Virginia. The Missions of Mercy project was initiated because thousands of Virginians are unable to obtain dental care despite their urgent needs. One of the largest factors influencing a person’s ability to access dental services in Virginia is geography — specifically, where a person lives. In some rural areas, the ratio may be as low as one dentist to 5,000-plus individuals.
In July 2000, the Virginia Dental Association Foundation launched the Missions of Mercy (MOM) project to provide dental services in identified underserved areas of the state where there are not enough dental practitioners to adequately address the oral health needs of the community. Due to the tremendous success of the initial project, countless additional MOM projects have been hosted in areas such as the Eastern Shore, Wise County, Northern Virginia, Petersburg, Grundy, Gloucester, Suffolk, VA Beach, Yorktown, Portsmouth and Martinsville.
The VCU School of Dentistry plays a vital role in not only giving care to this disadvantaged population but also providing dental support, staffing support, transportation and delivery of the VDAF MOM trucks and all volunteers, including dental students, dental hygiene students, advanced education students, faculty and staff. As of the projects 20th year of service in 2020, over 68,000 patients have been provided with more than $47 million worth of free dental care. Virginia’s MOM projects have broken records for the largest two- and three-day dental outreach clinics ever conducted in the U.S. and serve as models for over 30 other states.
Missions of Mercy projects have been held in airport hangers, high schools, vacant factories and fairgrounds, often in conjunction with a health fair that provides screenings and physical exams for the community. Field clinics resembling a MASH unit are set up with portable dental chairs, dental units, digital X-ray machines and sterilization facilities. Patients often start lining up the night before to ensure that they will receive treatment.
Students apply for the opportunity to be part of the project and are chosen to participate based on their record of teamwork, their ability to follow instructions and their clinical skills. Senior students are able to perform any treatment for which they have already received training, and faculty members supervise and provide instruction.
The projects, which aim to provide at least one procedure for every person who seeks treatment, represent an opportunity to demonstrate dentists’ care and concern for their patients. While the patients are very appreciative, the volunteers often feel they receive more than they give. The greatest return is the patients’ enthusiasm and new smiles that show dentistry is truly more than a skill; it is also a gift we, as dentists, can share with others.