Volunteer Dentists Can Have a Big Impact on Otherwise Underserved Children

Phil Santucci, DDS, MS


February is National Children’s Dental Health Month, and Dentistry Today is celebrating the event with a series of blogs focused on various aspects of pediatric care. #NCDHM

It’s National Children’s Dental Health Month, and dental professionals are making their yearly treks to preschools and grade schools, teaching kids to brush and floss and providing screenings. Most are volunteers, and I marvel at their dedication. But I also ponder what inspires them to do what they do.

It’s not a greater understanding of the depth of the problem. As dental professionals, we know that access to regular dental checkups and treatment are commonplace, but for low-income and uninsured families, oral health can seem out of reach.

Statistics vary throughout the nation but consistently show that children and adolescents ages 5 to 19 from low-income families are twice as likely to have untreated tooth decay compared to those from higher income households. In my home state, a study conducted by the Arizona Department of Health Services showed that 52% of kindergarteners experience tooth decay, a staggering number by any measure. 

It’s not a greater grasp of the far-reaching consequences of limited access to care and education. Most dental professionals I know are mindful that untreated tooth decay in young children’s primary teeth puts them at risk for future problems like compromised permanent dentition, impaired speech development, and increased vulnerability to infection in other parts of the body, such as the ears, sinuses, and brain.

One of the biggest issues that poor oral health impacts is poor performance and attendance at school due to dental pain. Dental issues are the leading cause of missed school days, with estimates showing that oral disease nationally causes kids to miss 51 million school hours per year. 


It’s not that dental professionals have a greater appreciation of the benefits of preventive dentistry. As dental practitioners, we know that the solution can be as easy as keeping up with regular brushing, flossing, and checkups. But for the millions of uninsured who see oral health care as a financial burden they just can’t take on, we have to find ways to ensure that access to dental care is available to those who need it most. 

Each year I review grant applications for the Delta Dental of Arizona Foundation, an organization that is committed to ensuring access to preventive oral healthcare and dental education for some of the most underserved populations. By funding safety net clinics, community health care clinics, oral health education, dental health awareness programs, and oral health coalitions, resources go directly to those who can have an immediate impact.

But that investment does not stop with dollars alone. Dentists within the Delta Dental network look for ways to pitch in, volunteer, and work alongside these amazing nonprofits. Preventive treatments like silver diamine fluoride applications, coupled with educational programming, go a long way to setting these children up for success. But the education of their parents can be just as important. Delta Dental of Arizona has also invested in partners that utilize mobile clinics and school-based screening/varnish and sealant programs that go directly to schools and underserved communities to provide these services to the children who need it most.

My Story

For years I was fortunate to have a small role in the Children’s Rehabilitative Services program at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix. I evaluated and treated patients with selected medical diagnoses and very limited access to orthodontic care. One day I examined a 9-year-old Native American boy, accompanied by his grandmother. They had traveled hours from rural Northwestern Arizona, and I observed that he was small for his age and wore a white button down shirt that was so threadbare I could almost see through it.

When he opened his mouth, I was shocked to see that he still had 20 primary teeth and that each tooth sported a chrome crown, the result of a juice-filled bottle before bed, his grandmother explained. We gathered records, and when the little guy arose from the chair, he threw his arms around my legs, tilted his head back, and thanked me for seeing him.

His genuineness and warmth cut through my professional façade. As he walked away, I ducked into the restroom. With tears welling from my eyes. I looked up at the ceiling and said, “I don’t want you to just look out for my four kids. I want you to look out for all of them.” And immediately came the reply, “That’s what I want you to do.”

I was inspired to be there by another orthodontist who recruited me because he knew I had a son with one of the qualifying diagnoses and thought my personal knowledge of the sorrow a parent feels would serve me well in this position. And it did, but that kid changed me that day, and I’d never see any patient the same way again.

Nonprofits committed to the betterment of oral health exist in each of our states, so my challenge to my fellow dental practitioners is simple. Find a community health center or safety net clinic in your area, inquire what oral health program it has in place, and offer your services.

We all lead extremely busy lives. But I promise you that when you see your patients flash a smile after you have provided treatment maybe for the first time, you will know you have had a lasting impact in their lives. And if you are especially lucky, perhaps they will impact yours. 

Dr. Santucci is a board-certified orthodontist practicing in Phoenix, Arizona. He received his DDS from Indiana University and his MS in orthodontics from the Center for Advanced Dental Education at St. Louis University. He is an adjunct professor in orthodontics at the Arizona School of Dentistry and Oral Health. He also sits on the Delta Dental of Arizona Foundation board. He can be reached at santucciorthodontics@gmail.com or (480) 948-8618.

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