Tooth decay cited as single largest pediatric health problem in the country
“One in five children in the United States today doesn’t have access to dental care. To call this a crisis is putting it mildly,” says Joan Gluch, Chief of the Division of Community Oral Health and Professor of Clinical Community Oral Health at Penn Dental Medicine. “The downstream effects include everything from missed school to billions of dollars in emergency care.”
Gluch and her Penn Dental Medicine colleagues confronted this challenge with targeted action 15 years ago when they launched the PennSmiles mobile dental clinic, a full-service dental facility on wheels. The dental bus travels to 24 participating schools throughout West and Southwest Philadelphia, providing oral health education and dental treatment.
Research shows that while affordability is a factor in the lack of access to dental care, for a significantly larger number of low-income families the real issue is transportation—simply getting to a dentist or clinic. Since 2003, 2,000 dental students have provided 24,000 patient care visits on the two PennSmiles buses, significantly increasing access to dental care for schoolchildren in West and Southwest Philadelphia.
The PennSmiles buses—a second was added in the fall of 2017 to meet increasing demand—allow Penn Dental Medicine faculty and students to provide care to school children in the community, while providing valuable community-based learning experiences for dental students. The 2000 Surgeon General’s report cited tooth decay as the single largest pediatric health problem in the country. By engaging with young patients before they’ve learned to fear dentistry, the PennSmiles program reduces or eliminates the hurdles to care caused by anxiety. The value of that approach is not lost on Gluch.
“I needed a lot of dental work as a child,” she recalls. “I remember how the dentists and hygienists were so wonderful and friendly that it didn’t occur to me to be afraid. We make sure our students are mindful of the role they’ll play in their patients’ perceptions of dentists, and we trust that a positive experience will translate to a lifetime of good oral health.”
Gluch plans to add two additional buses to the PennSmiles fleet, expanding the program’s reach throughout Philadelphia. “As many children as we manage to see, the need always seems to outpace our efforts,” she says. “When you consider the many significant returns the PennSmiles program brings—better oral health for our neighbors, better education for our dental students—how can you not want this program to grow?”