PennSmiles Has Local Children Grinning from Ear to Ear

Kids in West Philadelphia sure do have a reason to smile.

For more than a decade, the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine has been providing oral health education, screenings and primary dental care to children at local schools and community agencies.

It is done in partnership with Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships.

Penn Dental Medicine’s Division of Community and Oral Health oversees PennSmiles, an educational outreach and dental treatment program that targets children in kindergarten through eighth grade in West and Southwest Philadelphia.

PennSmiles gets around Philadelphia via its own mobile dental clinic. 

Complete with two suites and a waiting area, the PennSmiles bus is a 40-foot-long, 11-foot-wide, custom-made vehicle that serves as a portable dental clinic.  It is fully prepared for on-site treatment, including two dental chairs and the equipment needed to perform dental examinations, x-rays, cleanings, sealants and basic fillings.

Joan Gluch, the interim division director of community oral health, has managed the program since its inception.

“The PennSmiles program provides both increased access to dental care for Philadelphia school children as well as opportunities for dental students to learn and serve our local community as part of their dental education, illustrating the practical application of one of the core principles for the Penn Compact, which is to engage locally through service in action,” Gluch says. 

Since 2003, Penn Dental Medicine faculty and students have overseen more than 5,300 dental visits on the PennSmiles bus, offering diagnostic, preventive and restorative services to school-aged children.

One of the places that PennSmiles visits regularly is the Henry C. Lea Elementary School, where it debuted a decade ago.

Ten years later, Penn Dental Medicine’s commitment to the community continues.

“Last year at Lea Elementary, we treated 65 children in kindergarten and grades 1, 3, 5 and 7 and educated 245 children through PennSmiles,” Gluch explains. “We treat all children when the parent provides permission and completes a health form. Parents from the Lea School returned permission forms at a greater rate than parents at any of the other area schools.  We believe that outstanding return rate is due to the efforts of the school nurse, principal and teachers at Lea.”

For more than 20 years, community service has been an integral part of the educational experience at Penn Dental Medicine. In fact, the School’s students participate in community service learning courses during all four years of their study.

First- and second-year students, along with faculty, conduct screenings, classroom instruction and other educational activities, like showing children how to properly brush and floss.

Under the supervision of faculty members third- and fourth-year students provide dental examinations and comprehensive treatment in the PennSmiles mobile clinic and distribute free toothbrushes, toothpaste and floss. They treat between six and 10 children each day, and depending on how much dental care is needed, a child may receive between two to four visits aboard the PennSmiles bus.

Students log more than 10,000 hours in service activities each academic year through the School’s academically based service learning curriculum.

In addition to working with school children, Penn Dental Medicine students and faculty members provide comprehensive dental care at the Sayre Health Center and Penn Nursing’s Living Independently for Elders, or LIFE, program. Students also provide education and dental referral services at a number of nearby interdisciplinary care clinics, including the United Community Clinics, University City Hospitality Coalition and Homeless Health Initiative. These programs meet the dual goals of community engagement and increased access to dental care, while providing professional education for dental students.

Schools or community groups interested in learning more about PennSmiles and all of the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine’s outreach programs can contact the Division of Community Oral Health at 215-898-4971.

For more PennSmiles photos, click here.

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