Despite the pandemic, the UTHealth School of Dentistry (UTSD) adult dental van completed more than 3,000 treatments at no cost for nearly 400 patients and logged 107,000 miles on the highways between Houston and rural East Texas during the 2019-2020 academic year.
The school also estimates that the dental and dental hygiene students and faculty members on board the van provided approximately $375,000 worth of care. UTSD and its partners have provided about 8,700 procedures and $1.1 million in free care since the program’s 2015 launch.
“With our mobile dental van, we look for partners that support UTSD’s vision, ‘Improving oral health, improving overall health,’” said Margo Melchor, RDH, EdD, director of community outreach.
Partners include the TLL Temple Foundation, the Jasper Newton County Public Health District, Orange Christian Services, and the HH & Edna Houseman Charitable Trust.
“In addition, we look for vulnerable populations or areas in need and will assist in coordinating effective outreach. We felt this was a perfect win-win situation in providing dental care and other services for those patients in need,” said Melchor.
According to the ADA Health Policy Institute’s Oral Health and Well-Being in Texas Fact Sheet, 25% of low-income adults say their mouth is in poor health or condition, and 23% say they experience anxiety due to the condition of their teeth.
Rural residents often cannot access dental care, UTSD said, as some counties in East Texas have no dentists, and residents may lack transportation. The adult dental van helps overcome these disparities, the school added.
In addition to helping low-income, rural families, the program encourages dental students to embrace a social responsibility to serve the public, UTSD said.
“The mobile dental van is a learning-through-community-service opportunity,” said Debra Stewart, DDS, dental van clinical coordinator.
“Not only are students learning from the treatment they provide, they’re also learning about community service opportunities they can do once they graduate and enter the healthcare workforce,” said Stewart.
“Whether it be a small town or a big city like Houston, there are always numerous ways to give back,” said Stewart.
The dental van is a three-week rotation and just one of the other-service-learning rotations that fourth-year dental students may be assigned to as part of their clinical education.
The offsite rotation began on August 21, 2019, with visits scheduled through the academic year. In total, 19 visits were made to East Texas before the COVID-19 pandemic shifted UTSD to remote learning on March 23, 2020.
Student-provided treatments included exams, cleanings, oral hygiene instructions, deep cleanings such as root planing and scaling, restorative procedures and fillings, and extractions.
Several root canal procedures also were performed, and interim partial dentures were fitted for patients as well.
“In three weeks, it’s amazing what I get to see, not only in a student’s self-confidence, but in their skill levels,” Stewart said. “They witness the real world and gain valuable clinical training experience from these difficult, complex cases.”
Melchor and Stewart discussed the mobile dental van’s impact at the National Rural Health Association’s 43rd Annual Conference in June.
St. Luke’s Episcopal Health Charities donated the dental van to UTSD in 2002 to provide care to underserved communities. UTSD staffs and operates the van. Services and operating expenses are funded by income from grants and contracts.