Kids who can’t get to a dentist get better smiles through mobile teledentistry at their schools

Hygienist Esther Le takes photos of a student’s teeth at Danbrook Elementary School in Anaheim as part of the mobile teledentistry program provided by Healthy Smiles for Kids of Orange County. (The Children and Families Commission of Orange County)

In a classroom tucked in the back of Danbrook Elementary School in Anaheim, a set of cubbies held a row of different kids’ drinks.

Among the selection of items: Gatorade, Coca-Cola and Hi-C juice.

Each drink had a strip of small sugar packets taped onto them. The number of packets taped on showed how many grams of sugar each drink had. A can of soda had 14 packets; a bottle of Gatorade had nine.

The drink display was one of the many educational tools the mobile teledentistry program — provided by Healthy Smiles for Kids of Orange County — uses to teach students about dental health while also providing them with dental services.

With a focus on serving low-income youth who may not have transportation to a dental office or whose parents cannot miss work to take them to appointments, the program has set up shop in Danbrook school, Centralia Elementary School in Anaheim and Wilson Elementary School in Santa Ana.

The services have been offered at the schools since September.

Dental hygienists and assistants from the organization routinely visit each school to offer cleanings, X-rays and other services to students while also sending appointment results to a licensed dentist for evaluation.

“Imagine having a dental exam without meeting the dentist in-person, and in a classroom setting,” Ria Berger, chief executive of Healthy Smiles, said. “[The students] meet with trained dental hygienists, the hygienists take their X-rays, upload them to a cloud-based system to a dentist and based on the data, they have 24 hours to confirm if kids need to be seen for a follow-up.”

To help expand the program, Healthy Smiles will receive part of a grant of up to $12.4 million given last month to the Children and Families Commission of Orange County, one of the organization’s funders.

Healthy Smiles’ portion of the grant will allow them to organize 11 teledentistry units on 80 sites — primarily schools — in Orange County over the next several years.

“It’s for this population who often have a uniquely difficult time accessing dental services,” said Ilia Rolon, the Commission’s director of health program and policy, of the grant, which was awarded to them through a Dental Transformation Initiative Grant from the California Department of Health Care Services.

According to a survey conducted by the Pomona-based Center for Oral Health, one of every three children carries untreated tooth decay. That rate is higher than the California state average, Berger said.

“It’s rather strange being in Orange County because people have this conception about who we are … a glossy magazine coastline where everyone has straight teeth,” Berger said. “To the contrary, there’s a dental health epidemic and [the American Dental Assn.] has said that tooth decay is the most common chronic childhood disease.”

Last month, 6-year-old Jared Gomez, a student at Danbrook, was scheduled to get his teeth cleaned in the morning before attending his classes.

His mother, Maria Gomez, said she is currently not working and does not have a car to take her son or daughter to a clinic. Their family lives in an apartment near the school.

Jared lay back on a small dental chair in the Danbrook classroom.

While telling him to open his mouth wide like an alligator, dental assistant Laura Solorio and hygienist Esther Le brushed, flossed and took photographs of his teeth.

“Even baby teeth are important in dental development,” Le said. “Whether it’s baby teeth or adult teeth, both can affect how we’re able to communicate and eat.”

By the end of the appointment, the Healthy Smiles staff showed Jared a model resembling a set of teeth and taught him how to best brush his own.

Beneath the cubbies holding the sugary drink display were shelves that stored different prizes for patients.

As the staff cleaned up their patient station, they encouraged Jared to take a prize for doing well in his appointment.

He reached for a set of small toy airplanes and went to class.

Twitter: @AlexandraChan10

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