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Mobile Dental Clinics Bring Free Dental Services and Oral Health Education to Disadvantaged Children in Central Texas

In 2011, of the 16,000 children screened by the Dental Program, more than one-third of those examined were determined to need further treatment, such as fillings, root canals, extractions and cleanings.

Children waiting outside a mobie clinicThe St. David's Foundation (SDF) Dental Program is a program that brings mobile dental clinics to schools with large concentrations of low-income children and social service agencies in Travis, Williamson, and Hays counties in Central Texas. The program, based in Austin, TX, provides free dental services to people who otherwise would not have access to care. Central Texas has a large Hispanic population that lags behind much of the region in income and insurance coverage. For example, the parents of 29 percent of the children treated by the program report having no health insurance for their child, a rate 2.5 times greater than that of the general population in the region.

In 2011, of the 16,000 children screened by the Dental Program, more than one-third of those examined were determined to need further treatment, such as fillings, root canals, extractions and cleanings – evidence that most had had few or no regular checkups with a dentist. SDF targets this disparity by bringing its free dental services to where these children are – their schools. This strategy eliminates barriers such as lack of transportation and the inability to take time off from work that prevent some parents from seeking dental care for their families. Additionally, the children treated by the program avoid the negative outcomes associated with poor oral health including: reduced school attendance, poor academic achievement, pain or discomfort and eventually a costly visit to the emergency department that could have otherwise been avoided. Because the program is essentially a dental clinic on wheels, it is flexible enough to keep pace with demographic shifts and can target health services based on a community's needs. Over the years, the dental program has shifted its work from mostly restorative dental care to preventive. In 2011, the program provided sealants on the permanent molars of 77% of its patients, far-exceeding the Healthy People 2020 sealant goal of 28% for children ages 6-9 years.

Each of the six vans in the Dental Program is equipped with two dental exam rooms, digital X-rays and computer work stations. The vans are staffed by licensed dentists, hygienists and dental assistants who follow the same rigorous clinical standards and protocols as any fixed-based dental facility. Additionally, the program provides referrals and case management services for patients with complex dental needs. SDF subsidizes 50 percent of the cost while participating community dentists donate the remaining cost of complex care treatment. The true impact of increasing access to dental services for low-income children and using a preventive approach was demonstrated in a study completed recently by the University of Texas Health Science Center Dental School. It determined that children at elementary schools with past access to the Dental Program had a significant reduction in tooth decay as compared to schools that had never been seen by the program. The study documented that schools the mobile clinics returned to within a year showed an even greater improvement in the oral health of their students.

The Dental Program also participates in a variety of outreach strategies, such as tooth-brushing at schools, oral health education with children and their parents, and community-based health fairs. Through these practices, SDF is working to make preventive oral care a part of every child's routine for a lifetime of reduced dental risk and improved overall health.

"I didn't know how bad my son's teeth were," said the mother of a 7-year-old patient. "I saw the dark spots, but I did not know those were cavities. Thank you for helping my son feel better."

The St. David's Foundation Mobile Dental Clinic is one of the mobile health clinics taking part in the Mobile Health Map, a project of Harvard Medical School and the Mobile Health Clinics Association, a San Francisco-based national membership organization with more than 600 members. With support from the HHS Office of Minority Health, the Mobile Health Map has built a collaborative research network to document the spread and contributions of mobile health clinics as a model for improving access to care for racial and ethnic minority populations and others affected by health disparities.


Collaborators: Capital Area Dental Foundation; the Austin, Del Valle, Hays, Manor, Pflugerville, and Round Rock Independent School Districts

Funder: St. David's Foundation (SDF), Michael & Susan Dell Foundation

Content Last Modified: 2/21/2013 7:06:00 AM
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