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Mobile dentist unit improves smiles one child at a time

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY -- Everyone knows the consequences of illnesses such as heart disease and cancer. There is another illness, however, that is often overlooked.

Tooth decay.

The Southwest Public Health District, which oversees 14 counties in this region of the state, has an oral health division headquartered in Dougherty County with the overall purpose of promoting prevention of dental-related issues, particularly with the district's younger population.

"Our mission is to prevent dental disease in Georgia's children," said Dr. Olivia Taylor, the district's dentist. "Not all the programs are about prevention, but it is our overall goal."

There are three programs currently active. One of them is the Georgia Oral Health Prevention Program, which involves Taylor and a hygienist operating a mobile dental unit at Title I elementary schools that are willing to have them -- something that is done three days a week.

The district also has a fluoride rinse program -- in which rinses are shipped directly to the schools -- which targets first-graders on a weekly basis. There is also a Head Start program which involves screenings and a fluoride varnish once a week in the mornings.

Other new programs are in the works. A fluoride varnish program will target pre-K and kindergarten programs to further reduce the frequency of cavities. It does so by clinging to the tooth, effectively becoming part of the tooth.

The ideal result would be a blockage of cavity development. Any cavities that do manage to form will be arrested.

"This is an excellent service pushed by public health. If we can catch these kids at the pre-K and kindergarten stage, and get varnish on their teeth, it can cut down on cavities," Taylor said. "I'm really excited about it. I hope people will receive it well. The rinse gives protection but not like the varnish."

The program is expected to start in January, Taylor said.

The Georgia SEALS program, another recent addition to the oral health division, is funded by a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is meant to target second- and sixth-graders for sealant and varnish applications to first and second permanent molars.

Despite beliefs to the contrary, Taylor said that tooth decay is a disease and is the most common preventable disease in children, with an estimated 51 million school hours lost per year due to dental-related illnesses. It is a more common problem than asthma or hay fever.

"Most people do not think of tooth decay as a disease," she said. "If something is wrong with the tooth, something is wrong with the body. It is a big problem in children."

The problem is twice as common among low-income families, which served as the motivation for focusing on Title I schools, Taylor explained.

"It's for those children who don't have a family dentist," she said. "We are making (dental services) accessible to children, and it is very convenient. These are places that are tucked back, rural areas without easy access (to dental care)."

Often the lack of access to a dentist can have drastic results.

"There is a great need (for the district's dental services)," said Aldene Lanier, the hygienist for the program. "There is devastation in some of these kids' mouths."

A lot of the children are covered by Medicaid for their health care needs, but many dentists do not accept it because the reimbursement is too low -- another motivation for providing dental care in the health district.

"Anything used in dentistry is expensive," Lanier said. "Some dentists just won't take (Medicaid), which is why we are filling this need."

The dental service is available to elementary schools within the area that will have them. A lot of schools aren't very receptive to the idea, which is a reality that tends to frustrate district officials.

"I wish more counties let us in," Taylor said.

The mobile unit, which Taylor and Lanier generally move themselves, is set up in the parking lots of the schools they visit in order to provide their services. The unit is most often seen in Grady, Terrell, Calhoun and Early counties.

While the younger population takes up a lot of Lanier's and Taylor's time, that is not the dental division's only focus.

"We do see adults here (at the Dougherty County Health Department in Albany) on Tuesdays, but that is not the bulk of our program," Taylor said. "They are mostly adult patients coming from an area that does not have dental service."

The program and services offered are made possible by Medicaid and state funding. Even so, some of the cost is absorbed by those that actually provide the services.

"We still have to pay for a lot of supplies," Taylor said.

Carrying on with this program has not been easy, especially with the bulk of the work being performed by two people.

"There's a lot of stuff you've got to do," Lanier explained. "It involves a lot. There's a lot of maintenance you have to do to keep the unit going."

In fact, having a lack of manpower can make it nearly impossible to get the job adequately done.

"We don't have enough staff," Taylor said. "It makes it difficult for me to give the children the service they need. To do it safely and efficiently, we need proper staff."

The biggest need in terms of human resources is a dental assistant, which Taylor does get some help with. One day a week, dental assistant students from Albany Technical College lend a helping hand.

Despite its shortcomings, Taylor said she's happy with the progress the program is making.

"I think it's going good," she said. "It would be much better if we could get more schools involved."

Overall, the effort to serve those that can't always get the dental care they need is worth it.

"There are parents that have jobs that can't get off work," Lanier said. "We bring dentistry to them."

The mission to provide such services is by no means meant to replace a dentist, Taylor stressed.

"We really don't want to treat a child that has a dentist," she said. "We are trying to meet the needs of those who do not have a dentist."