SUNSET — Just about anything can be delivered to your door or your workplace these days — and now dental care can be added to the list.
On Wednesday, about 10 students at Sunset Elementary in Davis School District trotted down to an unused classroom, one-by-one, to visit Emma DeGrange, a registered dental hygienist, who had set up a mobile dental chair and equipment in an empty classroom, with the help of an assistant.
A child’s first visit for dental care doesn’t always go smoothly, but kindergartner Hailey Barrera, who was receiving dental care for the first time, was cool as a cucumber from the moment she hopped up into the mobile dental chair to be examined by DeGrange.
Barrera listened attentively as DeGrange explained what she’d be doing and showed Barrera some of the tools she’d use — an extension of the learning mode Barrera was already in at school.
(The roll of stickers on a nearby table didn’t hurt. After settling on circular blue sticker featuring an alligator at the end of her appointment, Barrera revealed she’d had her eye on them the whole time.)
While addressing children’s need for dental care is a health issue, it’s also an academic one, said Jodi Rees, principal of Sunset.
“Poor dental care definitely causes problems,” Rees said. “It’s like a headache or a tummy ache — when kids don’t feel good, whether it’s their teeth or not, it makes a difference.”
DeGrange works for Smart Smiles, an organization that delivers preventive dental care to children at their schools, providing one or more preventive services, such as dental exams, dental x-rays, dental cleaning, sealants, fluoride varnish and applications of sliver diamine fluoride, which prevent tooth decay from spreading.
“(Smart Smiles visits) can prevent (problems) or it can catch them early,” said Tanner Clark, executive director of Smart Smiles and a practicing dentist. “A small filling is way cheaper than a root canal.”
If a decay isn’t caught and progresses over time, it can have serious consequences for children.
“Root canals aren’t done on kids,” Clark said, so a child in that situation has “to wait, and they end up losing that (permanent) tooth.”
Because hygienists cannot diagnose and provide treatments the way a dentist can, hygienists with Smart Smiles can consult with dentists by sharing x-rays and video electronically as they examine patients, Clark said.
This way of delivering dental care, called teledentistry, is relatively new, and the state of Utah is still working out exactly how to handle it, he said. The issue will likely have the attention of the Utah Legislature in the upcoming session.
If hygienists and dentists encounter serious issues with the child’s dental health that need to be addressed, Smart Smiles contacts the child’s parents or guardians to refer them to appropriate care, Clark said.
More than half of the children who are treated are uninsured and receive the care for free, he said. Smart Smiles bills insurance, including Medicaid and CHIP, for those who have it.
Smart Smiles is also connected to a foundation, built by the same leaders of the other programs, which has the help of an investor while they’re also raising funds. The nonprofit is billed for the services Smart Smiles provides for uninsured kids, he said.
This is the first year that Sunset Elementary has brought in Smart Smiles, Rees said. The school invited all parents of students at the school to participate, and the parents of 20 students indicated an interest, though not all 20 are seen at every Smart Smiles visit, she said.
“I think in another year, as we promote this and get it out a little more, we’ll see some more families that want to participate in it,” Rees said.
Though Smart Smiles is a young organization, not even three years old, it serves more than 100 schools from Point of the Mountain up to Ogden, reaching about 3,000 children, Clark said.
Ogden School District is piloting the program at one school, Clark said, and Smart Smiles also works with several schools in Weber School District.
Smart Smiles is the only organization of its kind based in Utah, but there are a couple of other organizations based elsewhere that provide similar services in the state, Clark said. Because of this, districts must post requests for proposals for the services and compare their options. They cannot simply select one provider, he said.