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Northern Dental Access Center reflects on first year

Last week marked one year of operation for the new Northern Dental Access Center; and what a year it's been! Since opening the doors last December, we have provided dental services to more than 2,000 people. Our patients come to us from towns and rural communities representing at least six counties in northern Minnesota, and over 45 percent of them are children.

When our six founding staff members unlocked those doors on what may have been one of the worst weather days of last year, we never dreamed that less than 12 months later we would be undergoing an expansion project to add four new operatories and hosting a staff of 15. Far from our original plan to provide services on a limited basis for a couple of years, we found ourselves running at full capacity within 90 days of opening, and that momentum shows no sign of slowing.

With growth happening so quickly (sometimes we feel like we work in dog years), it's not surprising that the shape and structure of the clinic have changed from what was originally planned. The Access Center anticipated hiring at least one staff dentist and a dental director who would be responsible for the day-to-day operations of the clinic and coordination of patient care.

Unfortunately, we didn't find those folks. What we did find was an amazing group of individuals composed of volunteers, contractors and locums tenens (temporary assignments) who came together to fill our schedule and carry our patients through triage and treatment.

To date, we have had 25 dental professionals pass through the clinic. Some have been with us since the beginning, while others just stayed a short time -- all who came brought not only their skills, experience and talent, but also a spirit that reflected our vision and we owe a debt of gratitude to each.

As the composition of the clinic changed, so did our ideas about how to effectively manage it. We set out to assemble a core staff of licensed dental assistants, dental hygienists and administrative personnel who could provide the necessary structure which allows our unique system to work; and work it has.

The Access Center has 15 full-time employees who make it their mission to care for our patients and the facility. This group of dedicated individuals works in collaboration with our numerous community partners to provide the best possible care to our patients and their families, working hard to create a safe, family-friendly environment that encourages community ownership and personal responsibility. Northern Dental Access Center patients may not see the same dentist twice, but they know our staff by name and trust the care we provide.

Over the past year, Northern Dental Access Center has received local, state and federal awards. We have initiated several grant-funded programs to extend oral health education out into our service areas and provide auxiliary services on-site, as well as commenced an expansion which will increase our patient capacity and allow us to accept more offers from dental professionals who wish work with us.

Additionally, our regional economic impact has become significant. The Access Center saw $1.2 million in revenue this year, creating 15 full-time positions with benefits and a payroll of roughly $450,000.

2009 was a remarkable year, and we have no doubt that 2010 will not only lead us to further success and challenge, but also give us so much more to be thankful for. Despite state budget cuts and organizational growing pains, we know that patient smiles are what it's all about, and we intend to keep those coming.

Jeanne Edevold Larson is executive director of the Northern Dental Access Center in Bemidji.