Tomas Rivera feels fortunate. He found a dentist in the Englewood neighborhood that his 6-year-old son adores.
"It's hard to find a good doctor. We got lucky with him," Rivera said.
It hasn't been easy. When the economy slowed, Rivera, 36, lost the health insurance he had through his employer. Then, through Medicaid, he found a dentist.
"The doctor was rude and mean with my son. He was always in a hurry," Rivera said.
But he has seen a complete turnaround in the months since Brandon began visiting Dr. Vipul Singhal, director of oral health services for St. Bernard Hospital and Health Care Center's Dental Center in Englewood.
"I love him," Brandon said.
The 4-year-old center is doing much more than making patients like Brandon healthy and happy. It's helping to improve dental care in Englewood, where, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health, 62 percent of children in the neighborhood have at least one untreated cavity, while 7 percent need urgent oral health care because of decayed teeth, swelling or an abscess, said Lisa Soard, a spokeswoman for St. Bernard.
The center has 5,000 patients and has had more than 12,000 patient visits since it opened in January 2007, Singhal said.
"The mission is to help people, to give back to the community," he said.
When Singhal founded the center, he focused on children because studies showed an increase in the number of cavities in that age group. The center treats cavities, broken teeth and permanent teeth that have been knocked out of the mouth, usually by trauma, such as a hit in sports.
"(We wanted) to take care of children; to reach out to families, to give them good oral habits," he said. "We offered comprehensive care, such as cleaning, caps and crowns."
Singhal also sees some of their parents. "Parents wanted to be seen. (It was) better to take them in. It's a dental home for them," he said.
Singhal started the center with three staff members. He has since increased that number to seven part-time dentists, plus dental assistants, a patient coordinator, a person staffing the front desk and an office manager.
Except for Singhal, all of the physicians at the dental center also work at private practices, in addition to their time at St. Bernard Hospital.
Singhal works full-time for the center. "There's enough job satisfaction to be full-time," he said.
Singhal is also active with the Oral Health Division of the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Bright Smile Program. The year the center opened, Gov. Pat Quinn awarded the Healthy Smiles Hero Award to 24 dentists. Singhal accepted the award on behalf of the center.
"It's an honor," Singhal said. "These rewards and recognitions bring joy. … They sure motivate."
One of the innovations Singhal has put in place at the center is a sliding-point scale that rewards patients for taking care of their dental health. The scale includes receiving 200 points for coming for an initial visit and 20 points for bringing a child to an appointment on time, he said. Parents can also lose 20 points if a child arrives late for an appointment.
With 1,500 points, adults can "pay" for a dental cleaning, and 10,000 points will buy a root canal.
"I want positive reinforcement," Singhal said.
One of his patients, Vianna Walter, 44, of Glenwood, has been visiting the dental center with her 16-year-old son for two years. She has become a regular dental patient there herself within the last six months.
"It's a comfortable, clean, friendly environment," Walter said. "The service and the quality of the cleaning are worth the commute."
Her son is covered by insurance, but she pays out of pocket for herself, Walter said.
Fortunately, the sliding scale program has made it possible for her to visit the center. Walter has now had two root canals, the last one of which was completed a little more than a month ago.
"I wish I had started (treatment) sooner," she said. "I understand the importance of coming to the dentist on a regular basis."
In addition to the sliding scale, the center also accepts payment through Medicaid. Among its patients, 98 percent are on Medicaid, and 2 or 3 percent pay out of pocket, according to the center.
When it opened, the center was unable to obtain any financial support from the state or federal governments.
"We needed help from funders," Singhal said.
Donations eventually came from the St. Bernard administration, and, for this year and last year, the White Sox. They have contributed $20,000 each year, Singhal said.
There are 15 to 20 donors per year, he said.
Singhal said he wants to expand the center's services. After a year and a half of planning, the dentist started a program at the center this year for special needs patients, including individuals with behavioral problems. The center now has an operating room with general anesthesiology available. "I'm very happy to offer something for special needs," Singhal said.
In addition, he's working to begin an obesity program before the end of the year, which will provide information on diet and nutrition.
As for the Riveras, they are happy visiting the center.
"I like talking with him," Brandon said of his dentist.
He also likes the books Singhal gives him to read during appointments. The dentist has a treasure chest in his office, out of which young patients pick a gift at each visit, such as the snake and the black-and-white sunglasses that Brandon has selected.
"They know how to deal with my son," his father said.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times