New PennSmiles bus expands dental care for Philly schoolchildren

Visits to the dentist are a critical component of staying healthy, and too many low-income children lack ready access to high-quality care. The lack of access puts them at a higher risk for tooth decay, which can cause chronic pain and in some cases dangerous infections. Oral health problems are one of the top reasons why children in Philadelphia miss school.

To help put a dent in this problem, the School of Dental Medicine takes a local approach. Since 2003, Penn Dental has run PennSmiles, a mobile dental clinic offering care to preschool, elementary, and middle school students in public and charter schools in West and Southwest Philadelphia. This fall, with a $650,000 gift from Delta Dental, PennSmiles has added a brand-new, high-tech, 40-foot bus, and plans to increase the number of students served.

“Our original bus dates back to the 2003 launch, and as anyone who has struggled with a 14-plus-year-old car knows, they’re not as reliable as you would hope,” says Joan Gluch, Penn Dental’s associate dean for academic policies, and division chief and professor of clinical community oral health. “The new bus is equipped with state-of-the-art dental facilities and allows us to maintain our commitment to our neighbors to bring dental care to their children.”

PennSmiles partners with the School District of Philadelphia, working with 24 schools, most of which have student populations that depend on Medicaid or CHIP insurance for health care coverage. Since its launch, PennSmiles has provided preventive and restorative dental care and oral health education to more than 50,000 area children. Gluch says the program will continue to operate the old bus along with the new one, helping expand their offerings to about 5,000 children over the course of the upcoming year.

“Our goals are aspirational,” she says. “Our plan is to have four dental buses by 2020. We certainly have enough children to serve in West and Southwest Philadelphia, and we want to expand to South Philadelphia.”

All third- and fourth-year Dental students take part in PennSmiles as part of their community health rotation. The program gives them an opportunity to apply their developing skills—supervised by faculty dentists and hygienists—and learn about the health needs of their local community.

“The dental students get to know their patients as people,” Gluch says. “Our goal is to take dental students into the West and Southwest Philadelphia neighborhoods so that they can understand the social factors that affect childrens’ health and provide dental care in a convenient manner right outside the childrens’ schools.”

The new PennSmiles bus has two chairs for dental treatment, as well as a waiting area with educational materials. The new bus is also designed for full use of electronic health records and digital radiology. All children who visit PennSmiles automatically become patients of Penn Dental Medicine, allowing for easy referrals when children need specialized care, such as orthodontics or surgery.

After nearly a decade and a half of work in the community, Gluch says a PennSmiles bus parked in front of a school is a welcome sight to many local families.

“At our launch event at the Lea School, we had a number of parents who told us how happy they were with our services,” she says. “We know many families depend on us for their childrens’ dental care, and we take our commitment seriously to continue our work with our neighbors in West and Southwest Philadelphia.”

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