At Harmon Johnson Elementary School in the North Highlands neighborhood of Sacramento, a visit to the dentist is as easy as a trip to the school library.
Tucked in a corner of a building on campus, the pocket-sized dental suite is equipped with an examination chair, teeth-cleaning equipment, a portable X-ray gun and a miniature camera that sends digital photos to a computer. Every Friday, a dental hygienist is on duty to clean teeth and do routine exams.
The results, along the with each child’s dental record, are shipped via the internet to a local dentist, who reviews the exams and schedules full office visits for those children who require more extensive care.
The school-based dental clinic is part of a demonstration project conceived and managed by the University of the Pacific and funded by grants from nonprofit foundations. Now the state and federal governments have agreed to reimburse this kind of tele-dentistry at the same rates as a traditional office visit.
The arrangement, if expanded statewide, has the potential to bring dental care to millions of low-income children whose families would otherwise struggle to find dentists who accept payment from the state Medi-Cal program and can schedule appointments without weeks-long waits.
A recent audit found that more than half of California counties did not have enough dentists to serve the number of children enrolled in Medi-Cal. One out of four California kids never sees a dentist during elementary school, officials estimate.
Alma Negrete, whose 11-year-old son Leonardo is a student at Harmon Johnson, says the school clinic lets him get the care he needs without skipping class. Even when she was able to get him to a regular dentist, the offices would require separate visits for cleaning and dental surgery, forcing Leonardo to take time off from his studies.
“He was missing a lot of school,” she says.
Paul Glassman, a UOP professor of dentistry who is behind the pilot project, says school-based clinics are more efficient than a full-service dentist’s office because, typically, two-thirds of the kids are fine with just a cleaning and checkup. Seeing them in a regular office creates an unnecessary bottleneck in expensively outfitted rooms that should be reserved for work that only a licensed dentist can perform.
Another added benefit: When a clinic is set up on campus, not just children but also adults start thinking more about their teeth. The hygienist becomes a familiar, trusted figure who can dispense advice along with free floss and toothbrushes. In schools that have the clinics, Glassman says, teachers and support staff report scheduling more frequent visits to the dentist for preventive care.
“It’s a continuous presence all year long,” he says. “Everyone starts to think more about dental care and dental health.”
Assemblyman Evan Low, a Democrat from the Silicon Valley, has proposed legislation to earmark $4 million in state money to expand the virtual dental clinics to more schools as well as nursing homes, centers for people with disabilities and community centers.
That sounds like a wise investment. Early, preventive dental care is a proven way to create healthier, more productive children and adults. Paying for cleanings and checkups and making that care accessible is more cost-effective – and more humane – than waiting until people have serious problems that can be painful for them and for taxpayers.
Daniel Weintraub is editor of the California Health Report. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.