A gateway to oral health: Give Kids a Smile brings dental access to underserved children

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By Anne Polta, West Central Tribune, Feb 6, 2017 — It was her first-ever trip to the dentist, and 3-year-old Nancy Hernandez lay across her mother’s lap as dentistry student Jay Feuillerat peered into her mouth.

“Open nice and wide,” he encouraged her. “Whoa, those are some pretty teeth.”

Nancy’s mother, Nancy Castellanos Pineda, held the little girl’s hands as Feuillerat summed up the findings.

She had two cavities, he explained. “They’ll have to be addressed.”

The recommendation: a followup appointment to fix both cavities.

Nancy was one of 49 children who received free dental screening and basic preventive care Friday at the Rice Regional Dental Clinic’s annual Give Kids A Smile event.

It was a chance to reduce some of the barriers to dental care and get children launched on what organizers hope will become a lifetime of good oral health.

“For us it’s all about access,” said Dr. Linda Jackson, director of the Rice Regional Dental Center. “This is a way for them to get their foot in the door.”

Under the Affordable Care Act, dental insurance coverage for children is now more widely available, allowing access to care for more kids. But despite whittling down the coverage gap, many families remain uninsured, underinsured, unable to find a dentist who can see them or unable to afford out-of-pocket costs for dental care.

Reaching these families is one of the key goals of Give Kids a Smile, sponsored nationally by the American Dental Association.

The waiting room at the Rice Regional Dental Clinic was full Friday afternoon. Volunteers ranging from the clinic’s staff, dental students, local dentists and dental hygienists to nurses, public health workers and interpreters were kept steadily busy as they ushered children in and out of exam rooms, conducted exams, replenished supplies and filled out paperwork.

The youngest patients were infants, the oldest in their teens. Some had never seen a dentist before.

“A big part of the visit is the education,” Jackson said.

Instilling good oral health habits, along with screening and prevention, can help reduce the burden of oral disease among children and increase the likelihood that they will avoid more costly oral problems down the road, she said. “In the long run it makes dental work less expensive.”

Many of the families who participate in Give Kids a Smile also will end up as regular clients of the Rice Regional Dental Clinic, a partnership between Rice Memorial Hospital and the University of Minnesota. The clinic’s focus is on improving regional access to dental care, especially for those who are unserved or face barriers that prevent them from obtaining dental care elsewhere. Families who are not covered by some form of insurance can pay according to an income-based sliding fee scale.

The partnership has been important to Rice Hospital, said Mike Schramm, chief executive of Rice.

The link between oral health and overall health is well-established, he said. “Good access to dental care is important.”

The Rice Regional Dental Clinic fills a critical gap, not only in providing care but also in outreach initiatives such as promoting children’s first dental visits early in life, he said. “We see a huge benefit to the community and the region. We’ve seen a lot of successes.”

Equally important, it is a training site for dentistry and dental hygiene students at the University of Minnesota, helping them hone their hands-on skills and exposing them to real-life rural practice. It’s the only hospital-based model of its kind in the United States.

Kevin Nguyen, a fourth-year dentistry student who’s due to graduate in spring, was finishing his second rotation at the Rice Regional Dental Clinic Friday by volunteering for Give Kids a Smile.

“It’s a great opportunity to really help provide for patients who wouldn’t otherwise be able to find this service,” he said.

The afternoon’s pace was fast but “a lot of fun,” he said. “I love working with kids. We’re definitely on our toes here.”

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