The Harvard School of Dental Medicine (HSDM) took a hybrid approach to its Give Kids a Smile (GKAS) event on February 17, meeting patients both in person and online. The annual event, held each February during National Children’s Dental Health Month, offers an opportunity for children to receive free dental care.
In-person appointments were capped at 24 patients to allow for social distancing on the clinic floor in the Harvard Dental Center’s Teaching Practices facility. But teledentistry appointments enabled another 75 families to be screened, allowing providers to expand care beyond the clinic and accommodate more than three times the number of patients virtually.
According to Dr. Sang Park, associate professor of restorative dentistry and biomaterials science and associate dean for dental education, said that HSDM was one of the first dental schools to pioneer the teledentistry concept for the nationwide GKAS program.
“The entire family can be seen without having to leave their house,” Park said. “These virtual visits allow us to answer their most immediate dental questions and ultimately help families find a dental home.”
Patients who were seen virtually at the event were also offered follow-up visits to receive free in-person care at a later date.
“I am proud that we were able to coordinate with HSDM staff and faculty to host virtual appointments this year. I’m glad we could try something new to provide one more avenue of oral care to the public,” said Jessica K. Murphree, a DMD student with the class of 2023 who helped plan and promote this year’s event.
While COVID-19 safety protocols changed the delivery of care this year, the organizers were committed to hosting the event due to the critical need for dental care, HSDM said.
“The pandemic has created financial strain and has further contributed to a lack of access to dental care for many individuals,” said Ziwei Chen, a student organizer and member of the class of 2023.
“Preventive dental care is always important for all patients. However, children are a vulnerable population whose normal day to day routines have been turned upside down,” Chen said.
“GKAS gave us the opportunity to detect changes in oral hygiene habits and dental problems early so that these kids will not have a dental emergency as an additional distraction from their life and learning,” said Chen.
Stephanie, a mother who brought in 4-year-old Ellie for her first dental appointment, watched as her daughter received care from dental students.
“She was scared at first, but now she’s all chatty. This is awesome!” Stephanie said.
GKAS offers an educational component as well. This year, DMD students found creative ways to share lessons about oral health topics they would usually share in person by creating videos on dental hygiene and diet, proper brushing and flossing, and the importance of a dental home and regular x-rays, HSDM said.
“In addition to being a cherished tradition, GKAS is a special opportunity for HSDM as an institution to give back to the communities that we vowed to serve,” Chen said.