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Montana State partner acquires mobile dental clinic to help treat underserved communities

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A child shows her teeth to the camera after a dental hygiene check with Montana State University nursing students in Lame Deer, Montana. PHOTO BY COOPER MCDONALD/ MSU


BOZEMAN — Thanks to a partnership with a statewide nonprofit organization, Montana State University nursing students will gain valuable hands-on experience working in a new mobile dental clinic while helping provide care to underserved communities across Montana.

MSU’s Mark and Robyn Jones College of Nursing works with Smiles Across Montana, which recently acquired a modified 35-foot trailer that has been customized to contain a fully functional dentist’s office — complete with exam chairs, lights and instruments, an X-ray machine and teledentistry capabilities.

The mobile clinic allows MSU nursing students to gain valuable experience working in the dental field, which is integrated into undergraduate and graduate programs, according to MSU nursing professor Laura Larsson. In the mobile clinic, students will be trained to use intra-oral cameras to assess patients’ mouths, learn how to make referrals, engage in teledentistry and work alongside dentists and dental hygienists.

“The partnership between the MSU nursing program and Smiles Across Montana is preparing our Bobcat nurses to be top-notch members of the interprofessional health care team,” said Sarah Shannon, dean of MSU’s nursing college. “When we think about health care, we need to get the mouth back into the body because dentists and dental hygienists cannot address these problems alone.”

Tooth cavities can be prevented or easily treated if detected early; however, if left unchecked, they can negatively impact children’s school attendance, concentration and nutrition, according to Shannon. Oral health affects everyone’s overall health and can play a role in heart disease, pregnancy outcomes, diabetes and even Alzheimer’s disease, she added.

MSU nursing students are learning to take a holistic approach to health care, including studying dental care, behavioral health, classroom readiness and family relationships, according to Larsson.

“Our students are learning to operate as members of a much larger team, which is where health care standards are taking us,” Larsson said. “We can educate nursing students anywhere in the state, so why not do that where our students can both learn and meet the needs of communities?”

The mobile clinic will be hauled to reservations and other areas of Montana to treat underserved communities. Smiles Across Montana can treat patients with public or private insurance as well as the uninsured, and the nonprofit offers a scholarship program to treat uninsured children.

Three patients can be treated at a time in the trailer, said Crystal Spring, executive director and founder of Smiles Across Montana, which formed in 2018 and has been working with MSU ever since.

Smiles Across Montana participates in MSU’s One Community in Health program, which performs health screenings in American Indian communities, by providing pediatric dental care. The nonprofit also works with Proyecto Salud, another MSU program, which aims to reduce health disparities for underserved communities, particularly Spanish speakers. Students are heavily involved in both projects.

Previously, the nonprofit erected temporary dental offices in community buildings while traveling the state to provide care. The mobile clinic will reduce setup times, offer more privacy and increase safety, according to Spring. Grants and donations helped fund the purchase and outfitting of the trailer, she said.

“Our mobile unit enables Smiles Across Montana to bring not only equitable but exceptional care to Montanans all across the state,” Spring said.

Contact: Laura Larsson, Mark and Robyn Jones College of Nursing: 406-994-7504 or; or Crystal Spring, Smiles Across Montana, 406-581-5293

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