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Finding Creative Ways to Get Kids into Dental Chairs

When Aaron first got a phone call to schedule a free dental screening appointment for his children, he was initially surprised. That surprise then turned into delight. And that delight became a sense of relief.

“I was blown away,” he says. “It’s an amazing thing they’re doing here.”

Aaron’s two sons, ages 10 and 8, were missing their routine school-based oral care because local schools are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This unexpected follow-up call meant they could finally get the care they needed at a community clinic.

“There was an ease to the experience that really made a difference,” Aaron says. “It was pleasant and professional.”

Aaron’s family isn’t the only one that depends on school-based care. Across the country, families are dealing with countless uncertainties during the pandemic — and this is yet another one. There are nearly 1 million Medicaid-enrolled children nationwide who rely on schools to access basic preventive dental care. The importance of providing care in non-traditional settings, including schools, has captured national attention.

Even before the pandemic, going to the dentistHygienist Tiffany Foy in Oregon (photo courtesy of Joe Kline) wasn’t a common practice for many. Barriers like transportation, language or culture, and lack of coverage regularly keep people from a dentist’s office. And now millions of families have lost access to the one place they knew they could get dental care: schools. 

Dental hygienist Tiffany Foy and the Advantage Dental team were determined to find a solution in Central Oregon.

Unable to facilitate many of the community-based oral health programs they typically operate to provide preventive screenings, cleanings and sealants, they searched for alternatives. This fall, they moved quickly to set up community care days at local health clinics, and they called parents like Aaron to make sure they knew about it.

“Sometimes we are the first dental professional a child has seen or the only professional these kids see regularly,” Tiffany says. “The parents we reach out to are so appreciative of this program. Especially because of COVID-19, it can be hard to get a dental appointment, and these community care days make it easier for parents to ensure their kids get the care they need.”

Tiffany happened to be the hygienist who provided dental screenings for Aaron’s boys — and hundreds of other children — at the Redmond School in Oregon last year. So, making sure they weren’t falling behind on their oral health felt personal for her.

“I work primarily with the 0-5 age group, so I see a bunch of kids go from preschool into elementary school, and it’s fun to see these kids grow up,” Tiffany says. “Sometimes they’ll recognize me while I’m out grocery shopping and they’ll tell their parents, ‘Mom! That’s my dentist!’ I believe in what we do, and I know it makes a difference to these families.”

Aaron was relieved to have the experience for his children — and surprised at the exceptional care.

“The way health care is approached in Oregon is beyond what I’ve experienced before,” he says. “There’s an air of generosity and kindness involved that I’m not used to.”

Tiffany and her colleagues stood out in his memory as he discussed the appointment days later.

“The hygienist was super helpful and informative,” Aaron says. “Everything about it was easy and it made what is usually a scary experience for kids a lot more comfortable.”

Still, Tiffany says they aren’t seeing nearly as many kids as they would during a typical school year. Instead of hundreds of kids during a regular school day, they now see 10-20 per day at the community care days. She worries about the impact this gap will have on the many kids that they can’t reach.

“Our biggest concern is the fear of dental neglect,” she says. “Small cavities can grow into larger ones and can eventually turn into problematic infections. These community care days have served as a great option for patients this year and we’re trying to reach as many as we can.”

Aaron’s experience shows that providing access to care in non-traditional settings like schools and community centers can make a big difference for families. And it highlights a path forward that can help expand access to quality oral health care for all — during this pandemic and beyond.

“The whole experience,” Aaron says, “was top-notch.”

Editor’s Note: To learn more about school-based oral care, register for “School-Based Oral Health Care and COVID-19,” a free webinar from the DentaQuest Partnership for Oral Health Advancement on December 10.