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Public Health Dental Care A Lifeline for Georgia Children

February 3, 2014

When Cumi Fillion was handing out toothbrushes after lunch to students in an elementary school near Valdosta, a small boy walked up and gave her a hug.

Georgia children get free toothbrushes and learn how to take care of their teeth from DPH dental hygienists.

“He said, ‘Do you know how many children you are helping?’” Fillion said.

The boy explained that he had never owned a toothbrush, and many other children in the school didn’t either.

“It just broke my heart,” said Fillion, a dental hygienist in the South Health District.

Thousands of children receive free toothbrushes and learn how to take care of their teeth from Georgia’s dental public health program. But the program also works to help other children with serious oral health problems, serving as a lifeline for those who suffer from dental disease or pain.

The Georgia state dental public health program was established in 1928, making it one of the oldest public health programs in the nation. The program today provides many services for economically disadvantaged children and the larger patient community. In 2012, the program gave fluoride varnish treatments to more than 14,500 children in the state and placed more than 25,000 sealants on children’s permanent molars, sealing out the food and bacteria that cause tooth decay.

In many areas of the state, public health offers the only dental care for miles. The South Central Health District, based in Dublin, Ga., serves counties that have no dentists at all.

“We treat children with toothaches and sometimes swollen faces who are referred to us by school nurses,” said Debra Smith, D.M.D., the district’s dental director. “Many parents don’t have Medicaid or insurance.  We charge fees based on a sliding scale, and no child is ever turned away if the parent cannot pay.”

DPH dental staff provide screenings, sealants, fluoride treatments and referrals for dentists for thousands of children, many of whom have never been to a dentist.

When a child needs special care for a complex dental problem, Smith and her staff must work to find dentists who can treat them. Sometimes, finding the dentist is the easy part. Recently, when the district program’s staff needed to refer a young child to a specialist for emergency dental treatment, the only specialist they could find who would accept the child's insurance was at the dental school in Augusta, two hours away from Dublin.

“For many families, a major barrier to dental care is transportation,” Smith said.

Staff often contact other state programs to find rides for families who need to get to a dentist. In Dublin, Smith and her staff work with Medicaid, which provides transport for medical care. The North Health District, based in Gainesville, Ga., has worked with Ninth District Opportunity, part of Georgia’s Head Start Association, in all its counties for more than 20 years to provide transportation to the health district’s dental clinics.

Dental public health staff in the Northwest Health District give screenings and preventive care to students from the Georgia School for the Deaf in a mobile clinic. For patients with more complex dental problems, staff are able to provide sedation for surgery in the district offices.

Adam Doss, D.M.D., dental director for the Northwest Health District, said getting care makes a major difference for the patients they see.

“We often meet patients with disease, pain and no hope for oral health and are able to cure their diseases, eliminate their pain and give them hope for oral health,” he said. “In some cases, we can even give them a nice smile again.”

Treatment is vital, but so is prevention. Dental public health monitors Georgia’s fluoridated water systems, which has been shown to reduce dental decay by up to 40 percent. Dental public health staff also work with schools across the state to teach kids about keeping teeth and gums healthy. In 2012, public health hygienists taught more than 110,000 schoolchildren the basics of brushing, flossing and good nutrition for oral health.

Last year, staff in the Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale Health District sponsored their first National Brush Day activities, educating kids during Red Ribbon Week about the effects of drugs and tobacco on teeth and gums and about the overall importance of keeping the mouth healthy.

For many children, good oral health starts with simply getting a toothbrush. Fillion, the hygienist from Valdosta, said helping children take that first step is so important.

“Thanks to public health, we are able to provide a toothbrush and dental floss to all the children in our schools. No child is left out,” she said.

To learn more about Georgia’s dental public health program, visit the Oral Health section of DPH’s website.