The little boy appeared only slightly anxious as he scooted into the padded dental chair, but he had strong moral support from his family, which waited just outside the cramped, two-chair, mobile dental van parked in the driveway of Direct Relief International [DRI].. And he was in the skilled hands of dentist Dr. Silvia Erickson, who has volunteered for DRI’s Healthy Smiles free pediatric treatment program for the past five years.
Lively, Latin-style music played in the background as Dr. Silviaas the kids call her, and her colleague, Dr. Annie Pham-Cheng, a.k.a. Dr. Annie, checked gums and patched cavities (extractions performed if necessary) for selected Isla Vista Elementary School children. All of the children’s teeth had previously been x-rayed, so the targets were known. Expert reinforcements arrived on this overcast Saturday in August in the form of a husband-and-wife team, Drs. Dovar Dobranszky and Jennifer Koumaras.
The four Goleta-based dentists and their assistants treated 10 children that day from a larger group of pre-screened, low-income families without insurance. Each family participating in the Healthy Smiles program not only received free treatment of the children’s immediate needs but also instruction on oral disease prevention and a Dental Hygiene Kit assembled by DRI volunteers. The kit contained toothbrushes, toothpaste, and dental floss.
Martha Angeles, founding coordinator of Healthy Smiles, noted that this year was the first of many that the Goleta clinic was not conducted at UC Santa Barbara’s Student Health Service dental facility, as well as the first time the mobile clinic was tried. The white-and-yellow van is sponsored by the Dental Care Foundation of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
At least three other Healthy Smiles clinics are conducted each year in Santa Barbara County, usually in dentists’ private offices in the cities of Santa Maria, Guadalupe, and Santa Barbara as well as Goleta; Carpinteria, too, sometimes. Through these clinics, volunteer dentists fully treat between 100 to 120 county children annually, and dental educators instruct parents as well as their children in preventive hygiene. With its extensive educational outreach, the program projects distribution of 35,000 oral hygiene kits in 2009.
According to Angeles, Healthy Smiles was launched in 1994 “because there was great need” for modern oral care and preventive education in the county among those least able to afford insurance or services. Funding, including Angeles’ DRI salary, has largely come from Goleta-based Direct Relief and an anonymous donor, but “we also get small grants” for the kits, she explained.
Collaborative networking-currently Healthy Smiles works with more than 30 public and private agencies-has leveraged the program’s resources and influence. In the 15 years since inception, the program’s volunteer providers have treated about 1,800 school-aged children for problems that are sometimes serious, though not emergencies. If the issue is so complicated it cannot be fixed with a clinic visit, Angeles works with the dentists to secure follow-up private visits at no cost to the families. Such situations are often more difficult if the family is headed by migratory workers.
The value to taxpayers of even a modest preventive oral hygiene program, like Healthy Smiles, is demonstrated in a recent report by the California Healthcare Foundation on “Emergency Department Visits for Preventable Dental Conditions in California”.The report estimates that, though charges vary widely, in this state the median charge in 2007 for an emergency room visit for “a preventable dental condition” was $660.
Children and youth 17 and under accounted for 38 percent of the state’s 83,000 total preventable dental ER visits in 2007, the report said. In short, this age group may well have represented more than $20 million in potential dental ER costs, suggesting what a big difference preventive care in this one small area of medicine can make.
If avoiding personal pain is the standard instead of saving money, then, as a well-known commercial claims, the savings truly are “priceless.”
Dr. Silvia phrases it this way, when asked why she has donated her time, training and skills for years to Healthy Smiles: “It’s nice to give back to the community, and to take pain out of the mouth of a child is very fulfilling.”