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WNC Business

Expanding new avenue of healthcare

Feb 24, 2024 12:16PM ● By Randee Brown

In 2017, AnnMarie Miller and two other dental hygienists came together to start a unique healthcare business — Senior Oral-health Services. 

Senior Oral-health Services advocates for the elderly and strives to bridge the gap in their regular dental hygiene regimen. Hygienists at S.O.S. visit patients residing in hospice or nursing facilities, providing weekly preventative above-the-gum cleanings which remove plaque and bacteria from teeth and gums.

The idea for the business came to Miller during one of her continuing education classes. She became increasingly aware of the huge gap in oral care for elderly nursing home residents and wanted to do something about it. Many individuals in this population need assistance with tasks of daily living including basic oral hygiene, many are unable to travel to a dental office, and many caregivers aren’t trained to notice issues that may come up inside someone’s mouth.

Without regular dental hygiene, patients can be at increased risk for cavities, decay, and broken teeth, all of which can lead to systemic issues if not treated. If unfavorable conditions persist, patients are at an increased risk for aspiration of bacteria, heart issues from inflamed gums, and diabetes and high blood sugar. Studies have even shown there is a higher risk of dementia when gum disease is present.

“We’re the only service provider in the region that helps patients in nursing facilities with weekly dental hygiene,” Miller said. “Many individuals in this population may not be able to brush and floss; they may not have the dexterity to do that. We act as the middle person between them and their dentist and can catch problems very quickly. This helps them continue eating and chewing comfortably, helps with the way they smell, and helps with the way their mouth feels. It improves their quality of life.”

Senior Oral-health Services has grown from its three founders to a team of nine hygienists. Hygienists with S.O.S. visit patients in 16 facilities across Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, and Transylvania Counties, and the number of patients they see at each facility varies from one to 20 or more.

Their business model allows each hygienist to decide their own schedule and how many patients they’d like to see; some work full time with S.O.S. and others use this position to supplement other income. Each team member receives specialized training for engaging with dementia patients as well as a caregiver certification through the American Caregiver Association, and they see the same patients every week to maintain consistency and increase the level of comfort for the patients.

“This is a population that has very special needs, and the work is not for everyone,” Miller said. “It’s a very fulfilling position, though, and our team members know they are making a difference. Everyone who has started with us has stayed with us, and it’s a great way for them to give back.”

Services are currently available via private contracts with the patient and/or their families, and Miller said their goal is to offer full-facility contracts to offer care to all residents. 

“We are trying to figure out how to acquire funding to offer services to everyone in each facility,” Miller said. “We’ve spoken with a couple of nonprofits in the area, and are working on grants that would allow us to offer our services to more people.”

Working with Venture Asheville has helped with the business aspects of growing S.O.S., according to Miller. As the three founders are clinicians without business degrees, learning with Bill Phoenix and Jeff Kaplan has helped with business decisions, marketing, sales, and finance.

“It’s been great to have a strong team of mentors to troubleshoot with and gain good feedback from,” Miller said. “We often get caught up in day-to-day things to handle, and it’s good to step back and consider the growth of the company and what systems can be improved so we’re ready when the growth happens.”

Feedback from facilities has been positive, according to Miller. The hygienist is essentially an additional person on a patient’s care team with no extra cost to the facility, and the hands-on regular care can dramatically improve the quality of life of their patients.

Patients’ families are kept in the loop with weekly treatment sheets and photos, and say they enjoy the added peace of mind the service provides.

“It’s an opportunity outside of the dental hygiene world that we know,” Miller said. “It’s a way to make a real difference, and our goal and passion is to improve and enrich the quality of life for everyone in their family.”

Senior Oral-Health Services offers weekly cleanings to supplement biannual dental care appointments for residents of senior living communities. Learn more at