Program keeps smiles on studentsWritten by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s Note: Toledo Free Press, United Way of Greater Toledo and 13abc’s “Bridges” with Doni Miller are profiling 12 education initiative programs in Northwest Ohio. This is the 12th story in the series.
“Can you please fix my teeth?” the little girl asked the dentist who had come to her school, and he was happy to oblige. It’s times like those — a recent exchange with an area kindergarten student — that remind Dr. Michael Stubblefield why he does what he does.
“She had 12 to 13 areas of active decay, easily twice as many as I usually see, and she knew she had issues,” said Stubblefield, public health dentist at the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department, which operates a mobile dental program at low-income schools. “It’s almost heartbreaking when you see a child that small and they have serious issues.”
The health department’s mobile dental program has two parts: a school-based sealant program and a school-based clinic program. The programs set up portable dental offices inside a school, where they remain for a few days to several weeks, depending on the size of the school and response from parents.
The 23-year-old sealant program, which places sealants on molars to help prevent cavities, operates in about 60 Lucas and Wood county schools, including 36 Toledo Public Schools (TPS) elementary schools, seven TPS middle schools, eight Washington Local schools and two charter schools, said Dental Program Supervisor Barbara Stichter. It recently expanded for the first time into Rossford, Oregon and Springfield schools.
The 10-year-old clinic program operates in TPS schools, providing services like X-rays, cleanings, fillings, fluoride treatments and simple extractions. In 2010, the mobile clinic program saw about 1,200 students, Stichter said.
The programs are funded through Ohio Department of Health grants. To qualify, 40 percent or more of students must be eligible for free or reduced lunches. If a school qualifies, all students are eligible for dental services. About 50 percent of students elect to participate, Stichter said. The services are free to students, but Medicaid and other insurances are billed to help cover the cost.
“The whole benefit of what we’re trying to do for that family is introduce them to dentistry and lead them to a dental home,” Stichter said. “We’re not trying to be in the schools to be their dentists. We’re trying to take care of immediate problems, get them used to seeing a dentist and then get them into a stable dental home where they can go every six months to get cleanings.”
Tooth decay is the most common childhood disease, Stubblefield said.
“It’s something that even with advances in prevention, the decay rate has actually gone up,” he said, a likely factor being poor eating habits, especially excessive consumption of pop and candy.
Poor dental health can affect a student’s performance in school, Stubblefield said.
“A toothache is one of the worst pains you can imagine and you’re expected to function in class, which is next to impossible,” he said.
By providing school-based dental care, more children receive needed services, stay in school and have greater academic success, Stichter said.
“It boils down to a kid that feels well stays in school and if a kid can’t concentrate because of their health, they’re certainly not going to do well,” Stichter said. “A kid that’s not in pain means better attendance and that is going to make for a better student.”
Children from low-income families miss nearly 12 times as many school days because of dental problems compared with children in higher-income families, said Kate Sommerfeld, health specialist at the United Way of Greater Toledo.
Other local agencies, including the Neighborhood Health Association and the Dental Center of Northwest Ohio, also play important roles in connecting kids to dental service, but the health department’s program is noteworthy because it is school-based, Sommerfeld said.
School-based programs override the common barriers of cost, transportation or not knowing where to go, Stichter said. Some parents think it’s not necessary to care for baby teeth. Others have lost jobs or insurance.
“It’s hugely important because a lot of these kids just plain and simple don’t go. I’ve had lots of teachers approach me about kids in pain for months. They’re missing entire days of school,” Stichter said.
Oral hygiene is also reviewed with each student, Stubblefield said.
“A lot of these kids were never taught the right way to brush and floss,” he said. “My ultimate goal is to not be needed. I doubt that’s going to happen, but you do the best you can.”