When poor families have to choose between paying to visit the dentist or paying for food, they often choose the latter.
This hard choice leaves many poor children prone to dental problems, which can eventually affect their overall health.
In the Washington D.C. area, a mobile dental clinic visits under-served neighborhoods to provide children with dental care services, regardless of their family's ability to pay.
The van, with two dental chairs and a team of oral health providers, stops at 30 locations in the Washington area each month.
While most kids do not think going to the dentist is fun, registered dental hygienist Holly Graham tries her best to make the visit as pleasant as possible.
“We start very slow with them so we can get them on board so they get to know us," Graham said. "When they come back, they are typically more friendly. They are ready to go. They open without being asked.”
Graham leads the clinic's oral health team.
“It is a different program," she said. "We go out to the community. We give back to the community.”
That not only makes medical care more affordable, but also more accessible.
“Transportation is a huge barrier to access to care," said Dr. Marcee White, director of Mobile Programs for Children’s National Health System. "Our moving units go out in the community. We go to where the kids are. Typically that is in their communities, at their homes, in their schools. So we take those units so that families do not have to worry about taking three, four, buses to get to us. In addition to the dental services we offer, we also offer medical services. We offer psychiatric services, and social services for our families.”
Mobile medical care is available for underserved communities in inner city neighborhoods and rural areas across the United States. Washington’s program has been in operation for more than two decades. The dental van was introduced about 10 years ago.
“Over the years, our program has grown tremendously," White said. "In 2013, we had about 1,600 patient visits. We have actually implemented electronic dental records as part of our mobile dental units, which is so important when you have a mobile unit out there in the community to be able to access your patients' records at any time.”
White hopes the program can afford to get newer units in the near future.
“We actually have a unit that is 12 years old and it has a 10-year life span, so it is feeling every bit of it," she said. "It only has a two chair operatory. Some of the newer units actually have a three chair operatory. So I think a new unit would actually allow our team to grow, allow us to serve more schools, allow us to go to more communities.”
Natalia Hichez, a mother of three, heard about the mobile clinic from a friend a couple of years ago. She has become a regular client.
“I come maybe twice a year for every child," Hichez said. "Their waiting time is zero; I do not have to wait. If I have an appointment at 12, the doctor will see my kids by 12:05 at most. I usually get information from the doctor. Any question that I have, they will be answering.”
“The parents are the teachers to their children when we are not around," said Graham, the dental hygienist who leads the clinic's oral health program. "So it is very important to educate them on oral health as well, telling them to help assist with the brushing and the products they should be using at home.”
That is the philosophy behind this service: teach healthy oral habits early in life to prevent a lifetime of dental problems.