Some people believe that dental care is purely cosmetic or even a luxury. What is often misunderstood is that dental care is an important part of staying healthy. Having affordable and regular dental care is vital- especially to the patients at Columbia Oral Health Clinic.

Medical Personnel in the Midlands recognized in the late 1990’s that it was difficult to ward off infection among HIV positive residents because of tooth decay and gum disease. Many private dentists refused to treat persons living with HIV. Concerned citizens rallied to form the COHC. In 1998, the COHC joined forces with the Women’s Shelter to establish a dental clinic. Currently, the COHC is the only oral health clinic specifically serving the uninsured HIV/AIDS population in South Carolina, and one of the few in the nation.

According to Christopher Lee, Executive Director of COHC, dental health is incredibly important for those who are living with HIV/AIDS due to the nature of their medication, and the stigma that follows the illness.

“Not only do those with HIV/AIDS have a harder time fighting off infections than others, but many don’t realize that their medication requires them to eat. When they take the medication without food they become violently ill and stop using the medication altogether. Once we are able to help them get on a treatment plan they are able to start eating again and get them back to a healthy state,” Lee said.

This year the Foundation provided funding for the clinic to put toward general patient care. In the past, the Foundation has helped fund equipment upgrades such as a new Panoramic X-ray machine, allowing for faster and easier patient appointments.

“[The Foundation] has always been great to us. It used to take ten minutes for us to get the picture of our patient’s teeth, and if they moved even a little we had to do it all over again,” Lee said. “The new machine has also helped us out immensely as far as emergency patients go.”

Though the majority of COHC patients are those living with HIV/AIDS, the clinic does make an effort to serve other patients who are underinsured or uninsured. Generally, the organization sees patients who are referred to them by other organizations such as Dorn Veteran Affairs Hospital and Women’s Shelter.

In the future, COHC hopes to address one of the main issues their patients face, transportation.

“Last year we had a 35 percent no-show rate and of those, 90 percent of that 35 identified transportation as the issue. Whether it be their car broke down, they don’t have reliable means, their friend couldn’t take them that day or the bus broke down. We clearly saw that this was an issue and decided to look into it in 2017.”

In all of Richland County, there are only two dental clinics serving the underinsured and the uninsured. The other clinic is only able to see residents of Richland County, so COHC has seen patients from Sumter and Aiken.

“I feel bad when we have patients drive all the way from the upstate, because our appointments are timed so exact—people can’t be late here or they aren’t seen. We are meeting with state officials to see what more we can do as a whole for the state,” Lee said. “South Carolina really needs to step it up with dental care.”