Michelle Marcotte, 67, used to go to the dentist two or three times a year. But, because of the pandemic, she hasn’t had a cleaning in a few years.
Marcotte’s dentist is located in Canada, near her home in upstate New York. She chooses to make the trip across the bridge because she doesn’t have dental insurance, and the price of dental care “seems to be a bit less” in Canada, Marcotte said.
Her most recent visit to the dentist was last winter when she had to get a tooth removed due to an infection—which was caused by her inability to see the dentist at the beginning of the pandemic when her tooth broke.
“We were down here [in their Florida home], and I contacted my dentist up in [Canada],” Marcotte said. “And they said, ‘Well, if you’re not in pain… we can’t deal with you right now. We’ll see you in a few months.’ And by the time the few months went by, the tooth had to be removed.”
Marcotte said her situation was not unique.
“The dentist… said that they’re seeing a lot of that: People either can’t go or aren’t going to the dentist and then things get worse,” she said.
According to the Washington Post, people throughout the country are still avoiding the dentist, whether due to COVID-19 precautions or embarrassment over returning after many missed appointments.
Even as dentist offices reopen, Marcotte and her husband have had trouble finding a Florida dental practice without insurance, so they’ve looked to other options, Marcotte said.
When she heard on Nextdoor—an online public forum for neighbors—about an opportunity to be a patient for a UF College of Dentistry graduate’s dental licensing exam, she volunteered.
Dental students need to complete two fillings and a cleaning for the exam in March, UF College of Dentistry Senior Class President Carson Smith said.
Volunteers “can come in for a quick screening,” Smith said. “And then we take X-rays, take a look inside their mouth, and… determine if they meet the requirements that we need. And then, we would schedule with them to come in for the exam date.”
According to Smith, there are a number of ways that students can find patients for their exam. Many post on social media, like Nextdoor, or go out into the community to find people. Others have family, friends, or roommates who qualify.
“We also treat patients here at the College of Dentistry, so some of those patients may qualify,” Smith said. “Some students are able to receive all their patients [for the exam] just from the patients they’re treating here at UF.”
All of the treatment done during the licensing exam is free of cost, Smith said. Some students will even compensate the volunteers for their time or for travel and lodging, if they don’t live near Gainesville.
The free dental care is what appealed to Marcotte, as well as to another volunteer, Lexi Vander.
Vander, a junior business administration student at UF, said it’s been almost two years since she’d been to the dentist.
“My dad is always going between insurance companies, so I haven’t had a dentist in a long time,” Vander said. “It was free and I’m broke.”
Vander used to visit the dentist annually, but she said now she doesn’t know where to go.
“When I turned 18, my mom stopped scheduling appointments for me,” Vander said. “And I don’t really know how to do insurance stuff. So I just stopped going.”
According to Andrew J. Corsaro, UF College of Dentistry professor and director of screening and patient services, the college offers many options for low-cost care.
For patients with the time for a longer appointment, junior and senior dental students provide care at fees ranging “anywhere from 30% to 50% of what you’d expect a fee to be at a typical dental practice,” Corsaro said. Insurance is not necessary either, as the majority of the college’s patients do not have dental insurance, according to Corsaro.
If patients cannot afford even low-cost treatment, there are still local options.
“There are a number of other clinics throughout Gainesville and the surrounding area that are able to offer completely free care or even more drastically reduced care than we’re able to offer here,” Corsaro said.
The College of Dentistry supports these initiatives by assigning students to care for patients at the clinics, as well as having many students and faculty members volunteer their time at the clinics, Corsaro said.
“The college has two missions,” Corsaro said. “To train the future generations of dentists in the state and… to take care of the community to the best of our ability. And, luckily, those two missions align.”
But, despite the opportunities available for dental care for free or at reduced cost, many – like Marcotte and Vander – aren’t aware of what the college offers.
Instead, they both await the response of a dental student and wonder when they’ll next receive the dental care they’ve been delaying.