Yolanda Wright wants the patients at her North Pekin dental clinic to smile — all 5,600 of them per year, and especially the children.

That takes a lot of work. On average, 27 patients per day visit Wright and her staff of four dental assistants and one hygienist at the Tazewell County Health Department’s Dental Center.

Their state of dental health “is not good, I have to say,” said Wright.

Almost all come from low-income pockets in the county’s communities and rural areas, as well as a small percentage from Woodford County, which the clinic also serves.

Half of them are children into their teens, many with mouths riddled with tooth decay, Wright said.

She could use some help.

“This is a two-doctor operation,” she said. “We just can’t find that second doctor.”

Elsewhere, “You see a lot of retired dentists” who work in public clinics one or two days a week, Wright said.

“So if there are any retired dentists out there ....,” Sara Sparkman, the health department’s communications manager, said as the two visited in Wright’s clinic office.

Tazewell County, however, is better equipped to provide dental service through Medicaid, which about 90 percent of the county clinic’s patients use, than many other Illinois counties with large rural and low-income populations. The rest are uninsured and pay fees based on their incomes.

At least Tazewell has a registered Medicaid dental provider, unlike 44 of the state’s other 101 counties, most of them heavily rural.

That’s according to a recent study on Inequities in Dental Care in Illinois, which focused on lack of dental care access among poor and rural populations. It was sponsored by the Illinois Children’s Healthcare Foundation, Delta Dental of Illinois Foundation and Michael Reese Health Trust.

The study found that Illinois ranks as the nation’s fourth lowest state in providing Medicaid reimbursements for dental care for children and last for adults. That keeps dentists unwilling to leave private practice to work in public clinics, the study concluded.

Tazewell’s health department, however, has had no problem receiving Medicaid reimbursements for its dental care, Sparkman said.

Wright, a 33-year-old Bartonville native, started her dental career five years ago in private practice. Last November she took a cut in income to join the health department.

How long might she stay?

“Forever! She’s not leaving,” Sparkman joked.

“You have to want to do public dentistry,” Sparkman said. “This has to be a calling,” to which Wright replied, “Definitely.”

Wright’s career shift also made sense personally, she said.

She just had a baby. Wright puts in 10-hour days Mondays through Thursdays, yet finds her clinic work less demanding than a private practice that also requires office management and good patient flow to keep her income up. With Tazewell, she’s paid under a yearly contract.

There’s no concerns about patient flow, but it’s a great opportunity, she said, to provide the education about oral hygiene that many low-income children and parents have missed.

“That’s a big part of our job, especially for the assistants who do (dental) cleaning for the kids,” Wright said. “We teach them how to take care of their teeth.

“We see kids with bombed-out mouths” filled with decay. Parents aren’t feeding them the right types of foods, a lot of candy. They leave bottles or sippy cups of milk when (the children) sleep. Milk is good, but it leaves sugar on the teeth overnight,” she said.

Children who pass through grade school with teeth problems “aren’t smiling. They’re not confident. They stay home from school,” and approach adulthood with less chance to succeed, Wright said.

“We had a good day today,” she said Thursday of the 30 patients who came to her clinic “with good attitudes” about the care she and her staff provided.

But she could use a partner.

Follow Michael Smothers at twitter.com/msmotherspekin