Sonrisas Dental Health provides quality dental care to those in need during pandemic

Brenda Barrientos, Sonrisas Dental Health hygienist, leads a Virtual Oral Health Education lesson in Spanish for elementary school students while schools practiced distance learning this spring.
Brenda Barrientos, Sonrisas Dental Health hygienist, leads a Virtual Oral Health Education lesson in Spanish for elementary school students while schools practiced distance learning this spring.

For low-income individuals, finding affordable and quality preventative and basic restorative dental care can be near impossible. In San Mateo County, the waiting list for dental care available to low-income residents can be as long as four years. Fortunately, there are organizations like Sonrisas Dental Health (SDH) that offer high-quality dental care and oral health education to low-income populations. 70% of visits serve patients who are are low-income individuals who lack resources or insurance for basic dental care. Many of their patients are non-English speakers. Sonrisas’ San Mateo office is also physically wider in order to accommodate patients in wheelchairs, a feature that many other providers lack.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sonrisas was forced to invest tens of thousands of dollars to meet new mandated safety protocols, an unanticipated financial challenge that – along with many other nonprofits – Sonrisas rapidly needed to solve. Because of the changes in clinic operations required to ensure staff and patient safety, Sonrisas is expecting 40% less patient care revenue in the coming months, while facing increased operating costs.

Thanks in part to grant funding from SVCF’s Regional Nonprofit Emergency Fund. Sonrisas has been able to adapt many of their standard in-person services to provide patients and the community with virtual dentistry care via phone and web conferencing.  Sonrisas has also developed a Patient Outreach Program to proactively call patients and check on their dental health. They have created a virtual Oral Health Education program and a Toothbrush-To-Go program that reaches students who would have previously received education and oral health screenings through Sonrisas’ in-person programs.

Sonrisas dentist provides unemployed man with tele-dentistry care, tech support and human connection

Sonrisas CEO Tracey Carrillo Fecher notes that the increase in remote operations has allowed them to connect with their patients in different ways. “We support patients in as many ways as possible,” explained Fecher. “That can mean just giving human connection in a time when people are so disconnected.”

A Toothbrush-to-Go Program participant shows his new gear after partaking in one of SDH’s virtual Oral Health Education program.
A Toothbrush-to-Go Program participant shows his new gear after partaking in one of SDH’s virtual Oral Health Education program.

One of their patients, William,* lost his job as a security guard during the pandemic. William’s wife and two children moved back to his wife’s home country and he had been sheltering in place alone for a month. After losing a filling, he called Sonrisas’ 24/7 Shelter-in-Place Emergency Dental Line, seeking assistance. The emergency line, established when the shelter-in-place order began and made possible in part by funding from SVCF, allowed patients to obtain dental care and advice at any time of day without having to leave their homes.

A SDH dentist was able to address William’s problem by phone, offering oral care recommendations and a prescription for toothpaste. The dentist requested William to text or email a photo of his problematic tooth for Sonrisas’ records, but William explained that he didn’t understand that technology. The dentist then walked him through the process of downloading and launching Zoom, enabling her to complete her dental assessment, answer his dental and insurance questions and even offer him advice about how he could help ensure the health of his children's teeth even though they were living in another country.

*Client names have been changed to protect privacy

Providing human connection is just as important as a dental assessment during the calls.

“In addition to being a great dental practice, the way we connect with the community is just as important.” – Sonrisas Dental Health CEO, Tracey Carrillo Fecher

Below are some other highlights from Sonrisas’ work throughout the pandemic, made possible in part by funding from SVCF’s Regional Nonprofit Emergency Fund, which provides flexible operating support grants to help nonprofit organizations such as Sonrisas adapt to the increased needs and challenges caused by COVID-19. From mid-March through the end of May:

  • Sonrisas dentists provided 99 patients with 24/7 shelter-in-place emergency dental coverage and tele-dentistry services. An estimated 20-30 patients were able to avoid visiting hospital emergency rooms, thanks to this service.
  • Sonrisas Dental Hygienists called 1,700 patients through the Patient Outreach Program. They provided 625 individuals with health coaching to support at-home oral health care routines and screen the need to talk to a dentist.
  • Through virtual oral health education efforts, SDH distributed 1,150 oral health kits to students. Kits included a toothbrush, floss, paste, timer, and informational handouts and were distributed via school lunch pickup programs. These programs primarily target students eligible for free and reduced lunch, but are open to all students during the closure.
  • SDH staff provided Virtual Oral Health Education sessions via Zoom to classrooms in English and Spanish. They recorded the sessions to share with schools that had less access to technology. The sessions are now available to the public here on Sonrisas’ YouTube.

Check out the list of nonprofit organizations that have received grants from our Regional Nonprofit Emergency Fund.The list is being updated regularly.

As of July 26, SVCF has distributed $192 million in COVID-19-related grants. To view the total amount of grants SVCF has distributed through its COVID-19 response funds, click here. Visit our blog to read more stories of local heroes—donors, nonprofits, businesses—that highlight the power of our community coming together and helping lift each other out of this crisis.

To learn more about our COVID-19 response funds and to donate, click here.