Many Oklahomans aren't going to the dentist, unless in some cases when dentists come to them.
About 1.4 million Oklahomans are without dental care benefits, according to the Oklahoma Dental Association.
An estimated 58 percent of adult Oklahomans did not have their teeth cleaned in the past year, according to the state Health Department. Additionally, 27 percent of Oklahomans older than 64 years of age have complete tooth loss.
In an attempt to get more Oklahomans access to dental care, nonprofit organizations are working together to organize free events where residents can get care, free of charge.
The Oklahoma Mission of Mercy is one such effort.
The Mission of Mercy is a no-cost two-day dental clinic that has become an annual event in the state.
Since 2010, Oklahoma Mission of Mercy has treated 7,525 patients, equaling more than $4 million in donated dental services. About 1,600 volunteers make the event possible, including dentists, hygienists, assistants, office staff and language translators, according to the organization.
This year's event is Feb. 7 and Feb. 8 at the Chisholm Trail Expo Center in Enid. Doors open at 5 a.m. on both Friday and Saturday, although people begin lining up long before.
“They will camp out all night just to ensure they're going to make it in to be treated at the Mission of Mercy,” Dr. Tim Fagan, president of the Oklahoma Dental Association, said. “And it's just overwhelming for me to see what people will actually endure to get some free dental care.”
Later in the year, Remote Area Medical Oklahoma hosts a free health care expedition August 16 and August 17 at the Oklahoma Expo Hall at the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds. The organization provides free dental, vision and limited medical care, including women's health.
Beyond annual events, the Oklahoma Dental Foundation and Delta Dental of Oklahoma Oral Health Foundation have a MobileSmiles Oklahoma program that travels across the state, providing dental care.
The MobileSmiles program includes two RVs with two dental chairs inside each vehicle. The vehicles travel across Oklahoma, providing dental care to children and adults who otherwise would not likely get that care.
One week, the unit might be at a school. The next week, it might be at a mental health treatment center or a free clinic. Nonprofit organizations sponsor the units for $600.
John Wilguess, executive director of the Oklahoma Dental Foundation, said a sizable percentage of Oklahomans don't go to the dentist, in part, because of lack of education.
“People know they're supposed to go to the doctor or they know nutrition is important, but we haven't gotten to a point where the majority of Oklahomans understand or acknowledge that dental care is important,” Wilguess said.
Another issue is access.
In rural Oklahoma, it's easy to drive 40 miles and not see a dentist office in any community, he said.
And even when a town has a dentist, it doesn't mean all Oklahomans will have access. In Guymon, for example, no dentist takes SoonerCare.
In fact, 12 Oklahoma counties do not have a Soonercare provider, and 13 counties have only one SoonerCare provider.
Many of the counties along Oklahoma's southwest border don't have SoonerCare dental providers.
A handful of children and adults on SoonerCare go out of state for their dental care.
About 209 of the 288,611 SoonerCare claims submitted over the last six months of 2013 came from out-of-state SoonerCare providers.
Dr. Dunn Cumby, a dentist in Oklahoma since 1976, said Oklahoma City and Tulsa, especially the higher income areas of both cities, are more saturated with dentists.
It's more appealing to set up a practice in more affluent areas, he said.
Cumby, the chairman of community dentistry at the OU College of Dentistry, said the school is working to get students out into rural and underserved areas of Oklahoma.
“What we're finding is, when we send the kids out there, a lot of them are giving second thoughts to practicing in those areas,” he said.
And efforts like the Oklahoma Dental Loan Repayment Program have started to help.
The program repays loans of up to 25 Oklahoma licensed dentists for a two to five year period per dentist, according to the state Health Department.
Cumby said events like Mission of Mercy and the foundation's mobile dental unit help, but the state has to find solutions beyond those one- or two-day efforts, he said.
“It's a wonderful thing to be a part of it, but at the same time, what happens to other people on the other 363 days of the year that we're not there? But it's a good start,” he said.