WASHINGTON — It’s been seven years since a local child died of a dental infection that eventually spread to his brain.
Some parts of the Washington metro region still have a shortage of dentists, especially those offering safe, affordable care for children. But a dentist’s office on wheels is offering help and hope — one kid at a time.
The big blue van is a constant presence at schools and community centers in under-served neighborhoods in D.C. and Prince George’s County, Md. Now in its 14th year of service, the Children’s National Health System mobile dental unit is busier than ever.
“In an average week, we will see close to 50 kids — 50 to 75, absolutely,” says Dr. Marcee White, who runs the mobile programs at Children’s National and oversees the health clinic at THEARC community center in Southeast D.C.
Some of these children have insurance; some are on Medicaid. Others come from families that are struggling and sometimes have to choose between having money for food or to pay dental bills.
“We see children regardless of their ability to pay,” says White. She says the most important thing is to make sure these kids have what clinicians refer to as “a dental home” — a place where they can go on a regular basis for care.
The van, with two dental chairs and a team of oral health providers, serves 27 locations in D.C. and three in Prince George’s County. Typically, patients can get an appointment within two weeks, with emergencies seen as they arise.
White says the need for the van is tremendous, and that parents in under-served neighborhoods pushed to make the mobile unit a reality more than a decade ago.
The 2007 death of Deamonte Driver — a 12-year-old boy from Prince George’s County — only served to increase support for the project.
“I think he was the momentum that was needed to heighten the awareness of oral health in the community,” White says.
She says the focus is on prevention. The van provides basic dental services along with regular lessons on oral hygiene, and even advice on diet.
“We talk about their juice intake, their excessive snacking, the frequency of their snacking. We know that changing those behaviors will actually improve their oral health,” says White.
Cases that are considered too complex for the mobile van — such as those requiring a general anesthetic — are usually referred to the dental clinic at the main Children’s National Medical Center complex.
Dr. Erik Scheifele, chief of the division of oral health at Children’s National, says prevention is essential. He says people often forget that “the body is a whole, and you can’t separate the teeth from the rest of the body.”
Scheifele says severe dental problems and the pain they cause can have an impact on the overall development of children.
“It has a significant affect on their ability to sleep, to eat, on their ability to pay attention in school,” he says.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says about 51,679,100 school hours are missed each year nationwide because of dental problems.
Dental disease is the most chronic disease among kids, according to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. And White says it is five times more common than asthma.