On October 3, volunteers from Remote Area Medical (RAM) opened a clinic in Chattanooga, Tenn, that served 1,147 patients. A second RAM team served 644 patients in Grundy, Va, while a third saw 905 in Las Vegas, including 164 children. Yet the 2,446 dental procedures they performed overall added up to just another Saturday for RAM, which conducts a series of free medical, dental, and vision events each year.
“The organization was founded approximately 30 years ago by Stan Brock. He really wants to give back. He saw the suffering down in South America. He originally started the organization to deliver medical needs overseas,” said Jeff Eastman, CEO of the group. “However, he realized there was a huge need in the United States, and he ended up moving to Knoxville, Tenn, and started there.”
RAM began as a grassroots group that hauled its equipment in horse trailers and box trucks, depending on individual donations ranging up to $25 or $50 to operate. Yet 8 years ago, 60 Minutes spotlighted its work and surprised many viewers who were learning for the first time about the extensive need for medical care in the United States. Those viewers responded with support the organization needed to expand.
“It really opened up the nation’s eyes to what’s going on within our country. We were able to go out and get some new equipment and further get more volunteers,” said Eastman. “Now we have 4 complete mobile units so we could have 4 clinics around the US simultaneously.”
While RAM provides general medical screenings at these clinics, 95% of its patients end up needing dental and vision work. As a result, dental volunteers are the heart of the organization. RAM is always looking for anyone with experience and time, including assistants, hygienists, and dentists alike, regardless of specialty.
“The dentists will show up at 6:30 am and all they have to do is bring that great knowledge that they have between their ears. We have everything else,” said Eastman, noting that RAM provides food and housing for practitioners who travel to clinics to volunteer. “And they go home saying, ‘Man, I’ve made a difference.’”
The dental staff performs a range of procedures, including cleanings and fillings. Extractions are very common as well. Some patients require more complicated procedures such as root canals, though. Anticipating those cases, RAM aligns with local dentists in each city that hosts its clinics who provide follow-up care also for free.
“There is no sliding scale. There is no prequalification,” said Eastman. “We ask no questions for ID or immigration status.”
Since that appearance on 60 Minutes, RAM has been supported by major companies as well, such as DC Dental, Darby Dental Supply, and Patterson Dental, along with universities like Stony Brook and SUNY Buffalo. Equipment is key too, with an in-house denture lab underway and Sirona’s CEREC technology getting used at a recent clinic in Seattle.
“We have so many dentists who come in from different parts of the country, we’re the perfect beta test for a manufacturer. If they’ve got a product that they would like to get out to a large pool of providers, we would absolutely love to partner with them,” Eastman said. “We could bring it on site, use it for a year, use it for our big clinics so people will know they’re making a big difference, whether it’s on disposables, hardware, or technology.”
And it all adds up. From 2014 through October of 2015, 10,236 volunteers used that gear to provide $2.1 million worth of hours and $8.3 million worth of care to thousands of patients, at no cost to them. These patients don’t take this care for granted either, with many lining up on Thursday for clinics that don’t open until early Saturday morning.
“We were in Florida and a family came in. These kids were between 6 and 10 years old. The mother came in because she wanted a cleaning, and she wanted a physical so the kids could go to school,” Eastman said. “They got their physicals, they got their teeth cleaned, and I’m confident they were in school on Monday.”
RAM also relies on a small professional staff of 17 who support its daily logistics and operation. Eastman was a volunteer for 8 years, working as a “hall monitor,” as he described it. After he retired from another career, Brock asked him to help out on the business end. A year later, he was named RAM’s CEO. Yet he and his team still take a hands-on approach.
“Somebody’s got to balance the checkbook. Somebody’s got to load the trucks. Somebody’s got to raise the money. We have a very small staff of 17,” he said. “But that staff of 17 motivated 7,500 professional and general volunteers last year.”
During 2014 and 2015, RAM operated clinics in Washington, California, Nevada, Texas, Oklahoma, Illinois, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and Florida, serving urban and rural populations alike as well as Native American reservations. For 2016, RAM has scheduled 19 events so far, so there are plenty of opportunities for dental professionals to get involved.
“One of the impediments is getting volunteers. Stan has been able to lobby in 12 states so you can bring in your state license from out of state,” Eastman said. “We’re also aligning with dental associations. We have a great partnership with the Dental Association of Florida, where we brought in dentists from outside the state.”
Dentists who want to do more than volunteer and help bring RAM into their community can form a community host group, which takes a leadership role in promoting and hosting an event, while recruiting volunteers. RAM then provides equipment, expert support, funding, experience, and registration technology. Regardless of the level of involvement, though, RAM promises a rewarding experience.
“We were down in Florida. I was letting patients in the door, and a fellow came up and said, ‘I’m really scared. I’m really nervous. Last time I went to the dentist, a needle broke off in my jaw.’ I said, ‘We’ve got great professionals. We will absolutely take good care of you,” Eastman said.
“During the clinic I came over, and there was a dental assistant there, holding his hand, calming him down. The dentist had already done the procedure. I asked him how it was. He said, ‘Jeff, it was really good. Thank you so much,’” he said. “It’s that anxiety, and letting people know you care, and letting them know, okay, we’ll get you through this.”
To volunteer, call 865-579-1530 or visit ramusa.org.