Community Oral Health Initiatives

No-Cost Dental Care for Children in North Philadelphia

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A smile can break down barriers.

We’ve all experienced how a smile can help us feel seen and safe, welcomed and accepted. But, for parents and caregivers in North Philadelphia, access to a healthy mouth and smile for their children can also offer hope of a better future and help break down barriers of generational poverty.

At St. Christopher’s Foundation for Children, we know healthy foundations for children begin with preventative measures. Yet, preventing tooth decay, the most common chronic disease in children, remains out of reach for most families living in poverty. Families encounter all-too-familiar health barriers seen in low-income areas, including shortages of dentists in the community, unaffordable cost, lack of transportation, and language challenges. So, cavities are often left untreated, leading to poor oral health, infection, pain, difficulty chewing, and malnutrition.

At school, children and adolescents add aching teeth to a growing list of stressors that impairs their ability to concentrate, learn and develop appropriately. They face poor performance in school, low self-esteem and even risk addiction to pain medication. Eventually, irreversible damage to teeth and the oral cavity occurs, which can include decay, abscess, extractions, severe infection and in some cases, if untreated, death. As adults poor oral health impacts confidence, mental health, and the types of jobs and opportunities offered to them.

SCFC’s Community Oral Health Initiatives breaks down barriers to end this cycle by providing access to no-cost pediatric dental care to young children in North Philadelphia. Every child deserves a pain-free, healthy mouth and a hope for a better future.

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The Ronald McDonald Care Mobile Program

COHI treats children who are uninsured, underinsured, and those with access barriers. We start by reaching children in need of dental care right in their neighborhoods by partnering with schools, school nurses, and other organizations that families already know and trust. As the most recognizable part of COHI, the Ronald McDonald Care Mobile Program, a partnership with Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Philadelphia Region, visits patients at early childhood centers, Head Start facilities, elementary schools, summer camps, and homeless shelters. Program dentists and hygienists visit the sites and patients annually, providing comprehensive care on an ongoing basis at no cost to families.

On this 40-foot semi-truck, staff offer pediatric dental care with a thorough exam followed by preventative care, fluoride application, and sealants. Restorative treatment provided includes fillings, crowns, nerve therapy and extractions. We offer six-month maintenance visits to patients and the establishment of a dental home. The truck is equipped with three operatories, a sterilization station, and a waiting area. We also offer on-site digital registration and a waiting area outside the truck when needed.

The Ronald McDonald Care Mobile Program is just one of our five approaches to offering a healthy dental foundation for children. Our comprehensive plan includes treatment, education, awareness, prevention, and early intervention.

Our 5-Point Approach to Community Oral Health Services

1.Treatment

The Ronald McDonald Care Mobile Dental Program provides comprehensive and continuous oral health care through individual hygiene instruction and preventive and restorative therapies. It operates in many ways:

    • scheduled school and Head Start days
    • insurance events where insurance companies sponsor the truck and patients are invited by the insurance provider
    • location in the parking lot of St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children for patients who need additional appointments or emergency dental care

2.Education

Our oral health literacy program, My Marvelous Mouth, teaches children about the importance of maintaining a clean and healthy mouth. We work with local elementary, middle, and high schools to provide age-appropriate lessons in targeted areas in North Philadelphia.

3.Awareness

The Diamonds and Pearls public oral health literacy campaign promotes public awareness of oral health issues. Children, families and community members are invited to educational presentations at community meetings and other local events.

4.Prevention

My Baby’s Smile provides prenatal oral health education to expectant parents. By improving the oral health of pregnant women, this initiative decreases the risk of dental disease in babies and increases the oral health knowledge of the whole family.

5.Early Intervention

Pediatric Partners prevent dental disease in children by intervening early in the process. Pediatric medical residents at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children learn how to perform oral assessments, give parent education, provide fluoride varnish application, and referral to a dentist by age one and as needed.

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Mila’s Smile: A Story of Hope

Since 2005, COHI has kept nearly 30,000 smiles healthy. Those numbers show the enormous dental care needs of children in North Philadelphia but behind every number is a child, just like Mila. While Mila’s story is uniquely hers, it is not unique. Here’s how we helped Mila.

Most pediatric dental stories start the same: cavities. As a recent immigrant, Mila did not qualify for insurance coverage. So, like most families living in poverty, Mila’s family delayed treatment for reasons that are all-too common, including cost and access. Then, Mila began experiencing excruciating and constant pain. Knowing that she needed medical care, her family grew desperate, but they didn’t know where to go and how they could find the money to take care of their little girl.

Through a school nurse, Mila’s mom heard about our Ronald McDonald Care Mobile Dental Program. The Care Mobile's staff provided Mila with an exam, x-rays, and scheduled her for emergency treatment the next day. All 20 of Mila’s baby teeth were decaying and several had abscesses. If left untreated for much longer, Mila’s life could have been in danger. Instead, COHI restored Mila’s unhealthy mouth and gave her a pain-free smile at no cost. The treatment relieved her parents of the anxiety of seeing their child in pain with no means to get her the help she needed.

Since then, the Care Mobile has been Mila's dental home. Her family has received education on maintaining oral health and she comes back every six months to receive a check-up and preventative services.

Every child deserves a healthy smile like Mila, and every parent deserves the hope of a better future for their child. School nurses know firsthand the rate of decay in North Philadelphia, and they know they have a trusted, reliable partner in the COHI program.

Quick Facts About COHI

  • Since beginning in 2005, COHI has kept nearly 30,000 smiles healthy. Now, 43 to 48 percent of patients are uninsured, 80 percent have Medicaid, and 2 percent have private insurance. About 98 percent of our patients are from families with incomes at or below the poverty level.
  • 53 percent of patients are eight years old and younger
    The staff speak English and Spanish and include a full-time pediatric dentist, public health dental hygiene practitioner, a full-time dental assistant, part-time dental assistant, and driver.
  • The program serves patients 1 to 17 years old with no dental insurance or dental insurance and not under treatment at another dental office.
  • The dental care mobile meets children’s school dental care requirements.
  • Outside of school visits, the Care Mobile team provides care by appointment during evenings, day hours when schools are closed, and extended summer hours when school is out.

For further information about the COHI program, please contact Jean Rath, at 215-427-8877 or via email at Jean.Rath@towerhealth.org.

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