Portable Dental Clinics - We're on a Mission ...

Turning Schools into Centers for Pediatric Dental Care

Tooth decay is the single most common chronic infectious disease among California’s children. Nationally, it affects five times as many children as asthma. Untreated tooth decay means children are not only living with pain but that they can lose their teeth. This interferes with their attendance and attention at school, their ability to eat and develop proper speech, and, eventually, even their self-esteem.

And, yet, expanding pediatric dental care to the children who need it most continues to be a challenge.

Eisner Pediatric & Family Medical Center is taking on this challenge by partnering with the Los Angeles Unified School District to develop portable dental clinics inside of its schools. Our mission: To see portable dental clinics throughout LAUSD schools, wherever they are needed.

Initially, launched as a collaboration between EPFMC, LAUSD, and The Center for Oral Health, today, we operate one portable dental clinic in an LAUSD school, San Pedro Elementary. This fall, EPFMC will open a second school-based clinic at Nevin Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles with the help of a $25,915 grant from Women Helping Youth to expand the program.

From left to right - Moira Tenzer, Sue Barbis, Andrea Williams, Debbie Schermer, Cheryl Trinidad, Dan Romo, DDS, and Jill Weintraub.

Adapting Dental Care to Community Needs

About 2010, the management and administration team at EPFMC began brainstorming ways to expand dental care to more people in the local service area. It had become clear that existing services were not reaching significant segments of people in the community who needed care.

Dr. John Pham, the director of Dental Services at EPFMC, began a test pilot program with portable dental equipment at San Pedro Street Elementary School for 3 to 4 weeks. The portable system consists of:

  • A portable dental clinic that can be set up in 15 minutes
  • A digital X-ray machine, the size of a large blow dryer, that provides instant images in 3 seconds on a laptop computer
  • A self-contained rolling dental care system that looks like a nightstand, which has the air compression and vacuum necessary to drill teeth and suction saliva

Dr. Romo is pictured setting up the portable dental clinic.

Once it was clear that the program was needed and working, he asked EPFMC’s Dr. Daniel Romo to take over the program. The portable dental clinic at San Pedro is now in its third year.

In explaining the idea behind the portable dental clinics, Dr. Romo notes,

We had always known that dental care is a huge need in the community. We considered a mobile van service but decided on a portable dental care system because it offers more stability and options to the community we serve. Parents don’t have to take off from work to fit the schedule of a mobile van that might only be available once a year. They know the clinic is going to be there throughout the school year.

Currently, the portable dental clinic is available at San Pedro Street Elementary School on Mondays and Tuesdays. When it opens this fall, the clinic at Nevin Avenue Elementary School will serve students on Wednesdays and Fridays.

Portable Dental Clinics as Gateways to Preventive Education

The portable dental clinic program was started at the primary school level because it’s an opportune time to treat younger children’s cavities and educate them on the value of good oral health at an early age. At present, the program serves children through the fifth grade.

The emphasis of the portable dental clinic is on preventive care. The EPFMC dental staff provides the children cleanings, sealants, and fillings for small cavities that don’t require local anesthesia. Cavities requiring anesthesia can be treated if a parent is present. Otherwise, they are referred to the Eisner Dental Clinic.

After parents sign a consent form allowing their child to enter the program, Dr. Romo and his staff meet with each child, one on one, to do an oral exam, clean their teeth, and educate them about good oral health. They talk to them about proper brushing with a fluoridated toothpaste and flossing. The children also learn about the importance of a proper diet.

Dr. Romo explains that “Parents understand that candies cause cavities, but they might not know why.” He teaches them that bacteria, when combined with sugary foods and drinks, form acids that break down the enamel. This causes tooth decay.

“These parents don’t realize that other foods, such as starches in potato chips or excessive amounts of fruits or fruit juices, if left on the teeth, can form acids that break down the enamel. We encourage children to chew sugarless gum and rinse their mouth out after eating if they don’t have a toothbrush readily available.

“Fifth-graders understand acid. The younger ones, not so much.”

When asked how he explains acid erosion to the younger children, he laughs: “I tell them that germs poop on their teeth and make a hole. From the pictures that they draw for me, I can tell that they get it.”

Which foods benefit the teeth?

“Veggies, grains, protein, fruits in moderation. So pizza and hamburger are OK, but they can’t be all that you eat.”

Dr. Romo and his staff are pictured with one of the students they treated, Mia.

Portable Dental Clinics Benefit Kids, Parents, and Schools

The portable dental clinic program has been well-received on a lot of levels. Dr. Romo observes: “When comparing the makeup of patients served by EPFMC versus patients in private practice, our families might not understand the value of dental care or believe that they can afford it.

“When the child has a toothache, the parent is likely to medicate the child with Tylenol. Unfortunately, the tooth pain does not get treated properly. In many cases, the child eventually awakens, usually in the middle of the night, with a full-blown toothache. Now, the parent is frantic to get help for the child. The parent probably has to take time off from work.

“She finds our clinic and is seen by one of our dentists, but in many cases, the correct course of treatment is to give the child a prescription for the pain and swelling. The dentist then tells the parent to bring him back a week later. A week later, the parent has to miss work once again. In the population we serve, it is a financial hardship for these families when a parent takes time off from work to take his or her child to the dentist.

“So a school-based program addresses this kind of problem. Plus, it gives us the opportunity to educate kids on the value of taking care of their teeth with the hope of preventing this type of scenario.”

Because the child is learning the value of good oral health, other members of the family are also more likely to get treated. Currently, parents are not eligible to be served by the school dental program, but the dental staff does encourage them to come to EPFMC. At EPFMC, an eligibility case manager can help parents sign up for insurance or Medi-Cal to receive their own dental care here.

Last, the school benefits because LAUSD gets paid when kids go to school. Toothaches are one of the leading causes for children missing school. Typically, San Pedro had a 74 percent attendance rate. This past year, the school had their highest attendance rate, about 85 percent. Dr. Romo smiles, “We would like to believe that our dental program helped achieve this.”

We’re on a mission.

To learn more about the portable dental care program in schools, get dental insurance for yourself and your family, or make a dental appointment at EPFMC, call us at (213) 747-5542.