Children’s Dental Health Month: Reflections from a Community Dentist, by Olga Ensz, D.M.D., M.P.H.
A wheelchair-bound young boy with special health care needs whose family struggles to find him a dentist.
A teenager traveling two hours away to get his chipped front tooth fixed.
A 4-year-old girl with an abscessed tooth that makes it hard for her to eat.
A child with Medicaid dental insurance who faces long waiting times for dental appointments to address their cavities.
An elementary school student who doesn’t have their own toothbrush.
A child who talks about being bullied for having cavities on his front teeth.
“These are just some of the stories we hear from patients who receive care at the University of Florida College of Dentistry Saving Smiles Program. Even in today’s modern society, dental problems continue to plague Alachua County’s children. Issues such as untreated tooth decay cause pain and infection, and can also have far-reaching effects on children’s overall health and well-being. Dental problems can impact children’s self-esteem, their ability to obtain proper nutrition, get sufficient sleep, and pay attention in school, leading to long-term impacts on their future.”Dr. Olga Ensz
Unfortunately, the ability to access dental care remains incredibly challenging for many children in Alachua County, with the biggest barrier being cost or ability to pay for dental care. For children who have public dental insurance such as Medicaid, it is common for them to experience long wait times for appointments due to the small numbers of local dental providers enrolled in these programs. Other major obstacles include transportation issues, limited clinic hours of operation, and language differences. It is only through understanding these challenges that we can make collective strides to improve accessibility of dental services and positively enhance the oral health of children in our community.
The UFCD Saving Smiles Program was developed to help increase access to dental care for Alachua County’s most vulnerable children. In collaboration with community partners, the Saving Smiles Program provides no-cost dental care for children of all ages who are at high risk for oral health problems. The program’s team of dental providers offers a range of treatments to address tooth decay and other issues, with a focus on procedures that prevent oral health problems from occurring in the first place. These include services such as dental sealants and fluoride varnishes which prevent cavities on teeth, as well as individualized oral hygiene and nutrition education for children and their family members. The program uses portable dental equipment that can be set up in convenient locations for patients, primarily in schools and community centers in East Gainesville and rural Alachua County. Program clinical personnel are fluent in Spanish and have received advanced training to provide behavioral support for children with special health care needs.
In 2023, the Saving Smiles Program served approximately 3,000 pediatric patients and provided over $310,000 in dental care.
The Saving Smiles Program is truly an example of community collaboration and would not be possible without the invaluable support and advocacy of local partners. My heart is filled with gratitude for those who have contributed to the continued growth and development of this needed initiative, from individual donors and volunteers to the organizations below:
- Alachua County Public Schools for allowing us to incorporate preventive services such as oral health screenings and dental sealants in school classrooms.
- The Children’s Trust of Alachua County for their generosity in supporting program clinical personnel and the purchase of 5,000 toothbrush goodie bags.
- City of Gainesville for inviting us to provide dental care and education in recreation centers in East Gainesville.
- Episcopal Children’s Services for facilitating the delivery of preventive dental treatments to Head Start students.
- Gainesville Housing Authority for hosting our program at community centers on public housing properties.
- GNV4ALL for including us in serving infants and toddlers at the new Family Learning Center.
- Partnership for Strong Families for connecting children and foster families with our program.
- The Rotary Club of Gainesville for their contribution towards needed portable dental equipment and the program cargo van.
- Santa Fe College dental hygiene and dental assisting faculty and students for volunteering in our program.
- UF Medical Guild for supporting the purchase of dental supplies and assistive devices for our patients.
- United Way of North Central Florida for recognizing us as a community impact partner.
While there is still much work to be done as a community and a society, there are things we can do as individuals to promote children’s dental health. These include:
- Brushing twice a day with fluoridated toothpaste, especially before bedtime. For children under the age of 3 years old, they should use a smear of toothpaste about the size of a grain of rice. For children between 3-5 years old, a pea-sized amount of toothpaste is recommended.
- Assisting a child in brushing their teeth until they are can brush all surfaces of their teeth independently.
- Making toothbrushing time fun by playing your child’s favorite song or video as they brush.
- Encouraging drinking water and reducing consumption of sugary beverages. There are so many beverages out there that have a lot more sugar than most people realize, including fruit juices, sports drinks, flavored milks and sodas.
- Not letting infants go to sleep with a bottle filled with milk or juice or any sweet beverage.
- Avoiding foods that are high in sugar or refined carbohydrates that tend to stick to our teeth such as candies, chips, crackers and cookies. Fresh, unprocessed foods are best for our dental and overall health!
- Seeing a dental provider at least once a year. Many dental problems start off without any symptoms, and the earlier these are identified, the easier and less expensive the treatment options will be. It is also recommended that a child’s first dental visit occur by age 1.
These are small but impactful changes that we can make to help prevent dental problems and encourage healthy habits for a lifetime. In honor of Children’s Dental Health Month, let’s continue to work together to achieve optimal oral health for our children and our community!
In 2023, the Saving Smiles Program served approximately 3,000 pediatric patients and provided over $310,000 in dental care in Alachua County and our greater communities.