Growing pains for SEARHC dental

Temporary clinic struggles to meet its patients needs

Posted: Monday, March 28, 2005

They call it the MASH unit, an odd nickname for a dental clinic that temporarily occupies an office building.

Patients are treated with noisy portable equipment. While communicating on walkie-talkies, assistants wear winter coats as they rush back and forth between buildings to treat patients.

"We're kind of bopping around," said dentist Dr. Kim Hort of the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium.

The SEARHC dental clinic is making the best of what it has until it moves into a new home, which should accommodate more than twice its present number of patients.

The organization is a Native-run administrator of comprehensive health care for Alaska Natives in Southeast Alaska. Natives comprised 11.4 percent of Juneau's 31,000 people in the U.S. Census Bureau's 2000 count.

Since late January, the clinic has been split in two, while renovations are being completed to expand the old location. The dental care unit occupied half of a second floor in a two-level building on the SEARHC campus. In June, the new clinic will fill the entire level.

In the meantime, the clinic uses three to six chairs to treat 25 patients per day, creating a backlog of appointments.

"It's been tough on everyone, but our patients are very understanding," said Hort. "They can see the light at the end of the tunnel."

The new facility will have 12 chairs, making it possible to see 50 patients per day, if not more.

"People need to swallow their pride and come down here," said patient Rachel Lewis, who was getting her teeth cleaned before leaving on a mission trip.

Hort regularly sees cases of tooth decay, which often results from poor diets, she said.

The dentists also travel to remote villages across Southeast Alaska where there are no clinics for low-income families. Those living on subsistence have fewer problems than kids and adults who eat sugary foods and drink sodas, Hort said.

Hort is a general-practice dentist, like the other dentists on staff. They have no specialists but volunteers often fly in from various places including New York, Oregon and Seattle to lend a hand.

"That has made a world of a difference for the kids in our community," Hort said.

SEARHC plans to hire more dental assistants, especially Native applicants as part of its mission to provide jobs and valuable skills to the Native community.

"Native assistants really help out with older patients who need something explained in their language," said Kathy Bergey, dental assistant supervisor.

Besides more chairs, the new clinic will be "chartless," meaning every room has computers to store and send information. X-rays will be taken with digital cameras.

The renovations are part of an ongoing plan to expand the Juneau center. Two years ago, all services were provided from one building and now many services are run out of a new building on the hill, which can accommodate 40 percent more patients.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at

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