When children lack access to oral healthcare, they also run a greater risk of tooth decay. The infections and pain that often result can lead to problems elsewhere in their lives. For example, the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine reports, oral health problems are one of the top three reasons why children in Philadelphia miss school.
Thanks to a $650,000 gift from Delta Dental, the school’s PennSmiles program will reach more of these underserved children with a new, 40-foot mobile clinic. Since 2003, PennSmiles has provided mobile clinics for preschool, elementary, and middle school students in public and charter schools in West and Southwest Philadelphia.
“Our original bus dates back to the 2003 launch, and as anyone who has struggled with a 14-plus-year-old car knows, they’re not as reliable as you would hope,” said Joan Gluch, PhD, EdM, Penn Dental’s associate dean for academic policies and division chief and professor of clinical community oral health. “The new bus is equipped with state-of-the-art dental facilities and allows us to maintain our commitment to our neighbors to bring dental care to their children.”
PennSmiles partners with the School District of Philadelphia, working with 24 schools, most of which have student populations that depend on Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program for healthcare coverage. Since its launch, PennSmiles has provided preventive and restorative dental care and oral health education to more than 50,000 area children. The program will run the old bus along with the new one to expand care to 5,000 more children over the upcoming year.
“Our goals are aspirational,” said Gluch. “Our plan is to have four dental buses by 2020. We certainly have enough children to serve in West and Southwest Philadelphia, and we want to expand to South Philadelphia.”
All third- and fourth-year dental students take part in PennSmiles as part of their community health rotation. The program enables them to apply their developing skills, supervised by faculty dentists and hygienists, and learn about the health needs of their local community.
“The dental students get to know their patients as people,” said Gluch. “Our goal is to take dental students into the West and Southwest Philadelphia neighborhoods so that they can understand the social factors that affect children’s health and provide dental care in a convenient manner right outside the children’s schools.”
The new bus has two chairs for dental treatment and a waiting area with educational materials. It also is designed for the full use of electronic health records and digital radiology. All children who visit PennSmiles automatically become patients of Penn Dental Medicine, allowing for easy referrals when children need specialized care such as orthodontics or surgery. According to Gluch, the bus is a welcome sight for many local families.
“At our launch event at the Lea School, we had a number of parents who told us how happy they were with our services,” said Gluch. “We know many families depend on us for their children’s dental care, and we take our commitment seriously to continue our work with our neighbors in West and Southwest Philadelphia.