The name Medical Teams International may conjure up images of volunteers travelling around the world to treat patients. However, sometimes, the greatest need is right here at home in the U.S. – and Medical Teams International is working to meet that need, as well. For over 40 years and in over 40 countries, their volunteers have been on the ground to help see communities through disasters, respond to urgent needs – like those during disease outbreaks – and provide ongoing aid and support to refugees and displaced persons.
The charity’s reach is global, but they also support vast, comprehensive health care programs in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S., offering life-saving technology that can test, refer and treat at-risk persons in the region. We’ll be covering two of its highly successful health-related programs in the area – mobile dental clinics and COVID-19 testing.
Dental care = vital health care
“We consider dental health to be the gateway to the health of the rest of your body,” said one of the charity’s representatives.
What do your teeth have to do with your overall health? A lot, actually – conditions like tooth decay and gum disease, for example, can put patients at risk for other health issues, including heart attacks, strokes and complications during pregnancy.
Whether due to lack of time, health care coverage or money to pay upfront for even routine check-ups, health care is too often put off. This puts people at risk of exacerbating the issues, facing expensive emergency treatment or dealing with untreatable issues further on down the line.
This is especially true for dental procedures, which are often looked at as less necessary than other procedures more commonly associated with health care.
Medical Teams International has a solution. The charity provides free, urgent dental care services through its mobile dental clinics in rural areas, tribal reservations and dense counties for 11,000 patients annually across 325 locations in the U.S. with the help of over 750 professional volunteers. The clinics have visited homeless shelters, veterans’ organizations, churches, migrant communities and more to provide necessary dental care.
These thousands of patients don’t just seek out the mobile clinics because of the exemplary services they offer. The charity brings something more important to the table: trust.
Medical Teams International has built a culture of trust with its patients, providing them with the best care while also protecting their privacy. It begins when they first expand services to a new community – volunteers go and share information about the program to community members first to develop trust, returning later to offer treatment and aid.
The organization also keeps no personal data on record, so the migrant populations they serve can rest easy knowing that they will not face questions on their status and can receive the help they need without judgment. The charity often offers multilingual communications so that volunteers can better share important information with potential patients and connect more deeply with the people they serve.
A shift away from normalcy
Medical Teams International’s mobile dental clinic program was aiming for a strong year in 2020, looking forward to serving more people than ever before – but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the charity had to shift gears.
The nonprofit began actively responding to COVID-19 in Washington state in March, when cases first began spiking in the region. Then in September, the organization proudly expanded its services from typical dental and medical care to COVID-19 testing, opening testing sites in Oregon. The charity coordinated directly with local authorities and the Washington State Department of Health as their official testing agent and partner. Test swabs are sent to the University of Washington, a leading research center, for processing.
Its primary focus? Underserved communities in the Pacific Northwest that are considered “hot spots” for the coronavirus.
Their regional targeting methods parallel their mobile dental program outreach strategy of building trust among communities, all the while continuing to make accessible health care a priority. As with the mobile dental clinics, many of the people the charity serves are immigrants who may be facing extenuating circumstances like discrimination, operating without documentation and/or fear of deportation.
With this in mind, Medical Teams International’s testing sites are judgment-free zones that offer walk-in or drive-up options to increase accessibility, expedite service and reduce potential exposure. Not requiring a reservation alleviates patients’ concerns around filling out personal information online and enables people who don’t have access to a computer or internet to be tested. As with the mobile dental clinic, many of the volunteers at the testing sites are multilingual to support the most people possible and reach those who have questions that may have otherwise gone unanswered.
One staff member, Nayibe Tamboer, explains, “many of the people [we test don’t] speak English, so when they have someone approach them who is speaking to them in Spanish, it makes them feel really comfortable.”
Staff like Nayibe work with the patients to explain the preparation process and next steps, while also bringing them peace through the familiarity of shared language and detailed explanations.
Reaching hot spots with COVID-19 testing
A few of the identified hot spots have been the Yakima, Douglas and King counties in Washington, and tribal reservations, including the Yakama Nation (where over 6% of residents have tested positive). Native Americans are among those that have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, as they are 3.5 times as likely to contract the virus and have fewer health care options for prevention and recovery.
Increasing the charity’s care in these areas of greater need increases the likelihood of stemming the outbreak and identifying individuals who should isolate or seek treatment, ultimately aiming to flatten the curve. This work is especially important in the wake of the late summer wildfires that ripped through the area, when Medical Teams International worked with local authorities on the ground to provide testing to those displaced by the fires, in addition to hygiene kits and other aid.
Since opening up its free testing sites in the Pacific Northwest, Medical Teams International has tested well over 22,000 persons, with approximately 9% of those tests coming back positive. This underscores that their efforts have been a much-needed service in the region as they conduct testing and help educate positive patients with literature, medical references and resources they may need as they isolate and experience symptoms.
If you live in the Pacific Northwest and have debated getting tested, or know someone looking for a way to do so, consider these seven points:
- If someone in your household is being tested, you should too.
- The COVID-19 test is either covered by insurance or available for free at Medical Teams International testing centers.
- All medical staff and professionals onsite wear protective gear.
- The COVID-19 swab has been updated so that it’s faster and easier to administer.
- The timeline for receiving your results may vary, but is usually within two days.
- Keep track of your symptoms and temperature in order to come prepared for the test.
- By getting tested, you are protecting your loved ones.
Despite the shift in gears, the organization has also adapted their mobile dental clinic to the pandemic, following Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines and taking precautions within their practice to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while recognizing that its patients still need a safe place to go for dental help.
Through these operations, Medical Teams International relies not only on donations to provide free health care services and research into program expansion, but also on a dedicated roster of volunteers. For both its mobile dental program and COVID-19 testing site initiative, the organization calls upon medical professionals and licensed individuals to donate their time and energy to help manage and attend to mobile clinics and test sites. Having professional volunteers onsite is something the charity prides itself with, to ensure high quality visits are available to all who walk in for help.
Dr. Jill Hilty, a medical professional serving as a volunteer with Medical Teams International for communities in need in Uganda, was called upon to serve in Seattle. In her blog, she wrote that “part of being a volunteer is to remain flexible and help solve problems.”
She found connections between her experience in Uganda to that of the testing sites in the U.S. – people were, in general, distrusting and uneasy about the pandemic and the testing process, and had the same questions: Would the charity be enforcing quarantine? Were the swabs spreading COVID-19 itself? She approached this in the same way as she did in Uganda – by implementing trust-developing measures like the ones mentioned above to ease patients’ minds and help get them the testing and care they needed.
“While worlds apart in their circumstances, people wherever you go have similar, very human, concerns… they have hopes and dreams for a better future. My role as a physician is to help build that trust,” she writes. That embodies Medical Teams International’s mission, to not only serve, but build stronger communities that can lean on each other through difficult times and learn to seek help from trusted sources.
If you are a medical professional in the Pacific Northwest – or outside of the area and are willing to travel! – learn more about being a volunteer with MTI and read about others’ experiences on how volunteers put “love in action.”
Looking ahead: How to give your support
There are many ways you can help support Medical Teams International’s work in the Pacific Northwest and around the world. Here are some ways you can help support the charity’s various programs:
#ShowSomeLoveCFC. Even if you’re not a medical professional, you can still support Medical Teams International’s mission and programs by giving from your heart. If you’re a federal employee or retiree, you’ll find Medical Teams International through the Combined Federal Campaign (#11469) and you can give at https://cfcgiving.opm.gov/.
Boost CSR efforts. If you’re an employer and interested in setting up a workplace giving campaign to support MTI and their cause, you can reach out to Global Impact for more information.
Invest in streamlined programs: Care and Connect. Regardless of if you’re giving as an individual or looking to set something up for your workplace, you can also get involved by supporting Medical Teams International’s new approach, Care and Connect! This program aims to provide medical screenings, dental care and referrals in one traveling clinic that can visit remote or underserved locations. This will help with chronic disease management in rural areas, improve oral health and connect patients more closely to medical services they might not otherwise seek. Medical Teams International hopes to expand the reach of Care and Connect in order to meet a goal of serving over 30,000 vulnerable people annually.
The Care and Connect pilot program has so far successfully launched 18 mobile clinics, providing nearly 400 procedures on-the-road to homeless and rural individuals in need of medical care across Oregon and Washington in 2019. Medical Teams International hopes to expand the service through Care and Connect in order to meet the increase demand so it can reach nearly 30,000 patients.
As this year of the pandemic has tested anxiety inside and outside our communities, peace of mind may be the most valuable gift of the holiday season. “Patients are coming back [for dental, medical, and testing services] because someone is just taking the time to listen to them. We can show them that they do belong, that they’re cared [for]… and they do have dignity,” said one Medical Teams International volunteer.
Medical Teams International is one charity offering just that to all who seek help. No judgment passed and no questions asked, its clinics are truly a place for all to come in peace, and leave at peace.