Dental van brings care to children in underserved areas of S. Tier

DUNKIRK, N.Y. (WIVB)- On the road in the Southern Tier a dental van is bringing care to underserved children.

The UB S’miles To Go Dental Van has provided more than 38,000 patient visits over the last 20 years. An infusion of state money over the last few years has helped the program double the number of schools it serves.

News 4 caught up with the van on a busy Wednesday at Dunkirk Middle School. The team travels to elementary and middle schools in Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany Counties.

We see all kinds of cavities, we see infected teeth with abscesses, the whole gamut from caries to not properly cleaned teeth,” said Jordan Telin, a fourth year dental student at University at Buffalo.

Telin is providing rural dental care while also learning about it. Sixty six percent of the children they treat on the van has a cavity right now, or had one in the past.

Before the van pulls up, consent forms are filled out. A dental hygienist and assistant go into the schools with portable dental equipment to do screenings, cleanings and fluoride treatment.

The 42-foot-long semi then pulls up and the children who need fillings, teeth removed, or crowns are treated.

“I’ll give you an example of a school we were at and the child had 12 cavities,” said Paula Fischer, the program coordinator. “He was a middle schooler, hadn’t really had access to dental care. It took us several visits to get him all completed.”

The van parks right outside the schools, so the staff can get the child from class and accompany them to and from their appointment.

“It’s beautiful,” said Principal Joanne Russo. “The kids come out when they have their appointment, they have their dental services and then they go right back to school. It’s not interrupting their day, they don’t have to sign in or out with Mom or Dad.”

The program takes away the burden of transportation for families.

The Dunkirk City School District has been a part of the program since it started 20 years ago.

“We’re thrilled to have, it thrilled they’re here for our children to provide a service to an area that’s underserved,” said Russo.

Treating an underserved, at-risk population is what got the program started in 1997. Program Coordinator Paula Fischer hit the road in a Winnebago visiting about a dozen schools in Chautauqua County.

“Chautauqua County and a lot of the neighboring counties have limited fluoride in their water,” said Fischer. “The children we see on the dental van from these communities are considered high risk for dental disease.”

The Chautauqua County Health Department told News 4 the City of Jamestown and the Village of Westfield are the only two fluoride water districts in the county.

New York State Department of Health data shows in Chautauqua County 66.5 percent of 3rd grade children have a history of tooth decay, where opportunities for prevention may have been missed. It’s the third highest county rate in the state.

Data also shows from 2012 to 2014, the rate of hospital visits for outpatient dental care in Chautauqua County was three times the state average. About 110 children, three to five years old, went to the hospital each of those years.

“We’re talking three and four year olds that have so much dental decay they can’t be taken care of here on our van and need to go to the children’s hospital under general anesthesia,” said Fischer.

She told News 4 there is also a shortage of pediatric dentists in rural areas.

“We’re seeing that as dentists are ageing and retiring, there really aren’t enough dentists to go in and buy those practices,” said Fischer.

In 2012, local and federal grants allowed UB to upgrade the Winnebago to a semi.

The mobile van caught the attention of State Senator Cathy Young and in 2015 she secured $250,000 in state money for the initiative. The van became part of the Rural Dentistry Program.

Since then, the number of schools the van visits has doubled and the number of patients they can treat has grown by more than 200 percent.

The state money allowed them to buy the portable equipment for hygienists and expand to Allegany and Cattaraugus counties.

Hygienists visit 28 schools, the van goes to 22. They see about a thousand patients each year.

Senator Young secured more than $370,000 in last year’s state budget to keep the growth going.

“When you look at it the entire package, it’s so positive because we’re attracting more people into rural areas into health care professions and at the same time these children are getting the healthcare they desperately need,” said Senator Young.

Dental student Jordan Telin told News 4 he’s now considering rural dentistry as a career.

“Seeing what a high need there is now in these areas and how much help you’re able to provide these patients, is really rewarding,” he said.

Fischer hopes Telin will stay with this mobile van because more dentists means treating more patients. They hope to soon hit the road with a second dentistry van.

The van accepts patients of all backgrounds, both insured and uninsured.

The Chautauqua County Health Department told us since there is a real lack of pediatric dentists that take Medicaid they are actually teaching primary care physicians how to do a fluoride varnish, which protects teeth. Southern Tier Pediatrics and Jamestown Pediatrics both have physicians providing fluoride treatment.

To get in touch with the UB S’miles To Go Dental van, call 1-866-254-0052.