Working together to keep children cavity-free

June 7, 2013

Dentists from WellSpan’s Hoodner Dental Center are taking an innovative approach to keeping young children cavity-free. 

Twice a month the Hoodner dentists conduct a shared dental appointment, in which they examine 10 to 15 toddlers at a time.  They also apply a fluoride varnish and give parents a 15-minute presentation on keeping those baby teeth healthy.

The program targets children from low-income households, where good oral hygiene might be lacking.  Decayed baby teeth can inhibit a child’s ability to chew and speak clearly, and hinder the normal development of permanent teeth.

“We go over basic dental education,” says Jessica Jarecki, D.M.D. “Our goal is to get these kids regular dental care at an early age.”

It all begins at the York Hospital Community Health Center, where pediatricians talk to parents about the shared dental appointments.

Kristin Faust, a social service specialist who coordinates the shared appointments, said people typically react positively to the concept.

“I could probably count on one hand the number of times anyone has expressed anything negative about the group setting,” Faust says.  “The neat thing is that the parents easily relate with each other.”

All family members are welcome, and a translator is available to handle any language barriers.

“It’s a very low-key, friendly environment,” Jarecki explains.  “We have toys to occupy other children in the family.”

Experts recommend that children begin seeing a dentist no more than six months after their first tooth eruption.  For low-income families, that first visit typically comes much later, giving cavities a chance to begin.

Jarecki reports that of the roughly 700 toddlers examined during shared dental appointments, 35 needed immediate treatment for severe decay.

It’s a problem that can be easily prevented with education.  Some parents simply don’t realize the harm of putting a child to bed with a bottle of milk or fruit juice.

“Lots of times families think they are doing the right thing by giving their kids juice, but it’s pretty problematic for their teeth if not limited to just meal times,” says Faust.  “You can see all the parents in the room taking away the sippy cups filled with orange juice and iced tea when they learn this.” 

The WellSpan program has garnered national interest. In 2010, it was a topic of discussion at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement conference. More recently, dentists from another health system sat in on a shared dental appointment, intending to replicate it for their patients.