The sound of dental drills rang through the hallways of Riverside High School on Nov. 15.
A mobile dentist office visited the school to provide dental care to about 50 students in need.
“I never knew how much need there was until I started this job,” said Melody Daniels, team leader and Registered Dental Hygienist. “And it is overwhelming.”
Oral health is an enormous problem at public schools in the United States. According to the Mobile Dentists, “Each year, over 51 million schools hours are lost due to poor oral health.”
Smile North Carolina is a division of Smile Programs. This service operates in 19 states, and provides mobile dental care to schools all over the nation. On the Wednesday and Thursday before Thanksgiving, the North Carolina division was serving Riverside High School.
One of the major reasons why mobile dentistry is a good option is the ease of access for students.
“They don’t miss as much school,” said Dentist Ginly Hilton. “When students go to private practice, their parents often keep them home the whole day. They just miss one hour of school here.”
Transportation is also a major issue for parents, as many do not have the means or cannot take off work to get their children to the dentist. This is especially a problem for lower income families or single parents.
“Sometimes it’s education, where parent aren’t aware that baby teeth need to be cared for,” Daniels said.
One of the worst cases Daniels saw was a 5-year-old who ended up having three out of 20 teeth remaining.
Children on Medicaid have problems finding dentists that accept their insurance. This is a chronic problem in dentistry.
“Most of our kids are Medicaid patients,” Hilton said. “A lot of private offices do not see a lot of Medicaid children because the reimbursement rate isn’t great. So for private practices, financially it doesn’t make a lot of sense for them.”
Hilton said that they try to focus on these students that cannot afford to regularly see a dentist.
“Kids suffer from that because they don’t get the care that they need,” said Hilton.
“That’s where we try and come in to bridge that gap and provide the care that the kids need.”
Even if a child cannot afford care, and doesn’t have insurance, Smile North Carolina treats these students for free.
The problems caused by poor dental health go beyond medical concerns.
“It is very bad,” said Kanika Lawson, head of career and technical education and special populations at Riverside. “We have one student who wasn’t even coming to school because of her teeth.”
According to state data, about 21 percent of Durham kindergartners have decayed permanent teeth.
“Appearance is everything and kids are cruel,” said Lawson. “If kids feel good about their smile, they will feel better about who they are. I do think confidence is a huge thing and kids are pressured a lot in school.”