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Smilemobile Part Of Dentists’ Drive To Reach Needy Kids

Rapid advances in dental care have virtually eliminated cavities for children who regularly visit the dentist, but a quarter-million kids from low-income Washington families get little or no dental care.

In Spokane County, nearly 60 percent of the 35,000 youngsters eligible for Medicaid-covered dental care didn’t see a dentist last year, according to the state Department of Social and Health Services.

As dentists, we see the consequences: recurring infections, pain, missed school days, and decayed and lost teeth that, in turn, damage self-esteem. What’s truly sad is that dental disease in children is easily and inexpensively preventable. With regular checkups, fluoride treatments, brushing, flossing, tooth sealants and a decent diet, kids can have healthy teeth for the rest of their lives.

Providing children with better access to dental care is a high priority for dentists and other dental care professionals across the state. The Washington State Dental Association, which represents more than 3,000 dentists, estimates that its member dentists donated more than $5 million in services last year.

In Spokane, many dentists participate in Medicaid programs for children and volunteer their services at community clinics. Many of us also participate in a program called Access to Baby and Child Dentistry, which helps catch problems early by getting children to a dentist before age 4. Since it was started last year, the program has helped treat more than 4,500 kids, also giving them and their parents a more positive attitude about oral health. Another program we’re involved in is called the Children’s Health and Oral Maintenance Program, or CHOMP, created for The older siblings of children in the ABCD program and for other low-income youths.

But this still is not enough. If we want children to have more access to dental care, we must take dental care to them. One year ago, a new program was rolled out to help tackle the access problem. The SmileMobile - a 40-foot, state-of-the-art. mobile dental clinic featuring three dental chairs and an X-ray machine - hit the road in August 1995, with a mission to help the underserved kids of this state.

The brightly painted van is making its second visit to Spokane this month. From Aug. 1 to 13, it will be located at the Spokane Valley Center at 11922 East First Ave. And from Aug. 15 to 23 it will be located at the Spokane County District Health Center at 1101 West College St.

Traveling the state year-round, the SmileMobile averages one to two weeks in each city. During its first year of operation, it screened and treated about 3,000 youngsters 13 and younger in 24 communities, including 265 in Spokane.

The treatments, provided at little or no charge, range from exams and fillings to preventive care and minor oral surgery. When possible, Medicaid and other government programs reimburse the services.

At the same time, the SmileMobile program is teaching thousands of children and their families how to take care of their teeth. Kids receive free toothbrushes, toothpaste and dental floss, and activity books to help them learn how to use them properly.

The SmileMobile is a collaborative effort. Washington Dental Service, the state’s largest and oldest provider of prepaid dental plans, and the charitable WDS Foundation purchased the clinic and are paying for its operation, including the salary of a dentist who travels with the vehicle and coordinates the care provided in the van.

WSDA member dentists and their staffs from across the state volunteer their time to help treat and educate the children. In Spokane, the SmileMobile program also works closely with the ABCD and CHOMP programs.

The SmileMobile has the potential to reach far beyond the thousands of Washington state youngsters who directly benefit from it. It is shining a spotlight on the problem of access to dental care. We hope it will encourage more community volunteers, elected officials, educators and others to collaborate on other ways to give the gift of smiling to as many children as possible.


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