The most important element of childhood development is overall health. With schools nationwide facing unprecedented challenges during the current pandemic, setting children up with proper oral health treatment and education early on can be a determinant of their future success.
Many children, especially in communities that traditionally lack access to care, rely on school to get the oral health treatment they require. This means that during these times, it is more difficult for many children to receive the care they deserve. In a socially distanced interview, we spoke with representatives of Kintegra Health about challenges regarding school-based care during COVID-19.
Dr. William Donigan, general dentist and dental director at Kintegra Health, and Melissa Boughman, dental hygienist and dental ACCESS program director for Kintegra Health, both touched on the importance of providing school-based care to those who do not traditionally have access to oral health care.
Transportation issues are a common theme in Title I schools. Because many parents are not able to regularly bring their children to oral health appointments due to work conflicts or lack of transportation, Kintegra Health’s mobile dentistry units are essential parts of their operation. Operating out of Gastonia, North Carolina, there are two of these mobile units, as well as a dental van for follow-up visits and sealants.
“It’s so wonderful that we’ve been blessed with these mobile dental units that we can drive right up, park, and they bring the children out to us,” Boughman said.
Donigan also emphasized the importance of comprehensive oral care in the areas they serve. “Kintegra has been very responsive to the communities that we are involved in,” Donigan said. “Our mobile dentist unit goes anywhere within thirty minutes of one of our clinics.”
When asked how Kintegra is able to provide patient care during the COVID-19 pandemic, Donigan highlighted the use of intraoral photographs submitted by parents of the children, a supplement to the care provided by the mobile dental units. This increases conservation of personal protective equipment (PPE), lowers chair time, and allows patients to avoid leaving the house altogether for non-emergencies.
However, due to the use of cell phone pictures in these virtual exchanges of information, there have been concerns about image quality.
“The advantage of talking to the parent at that point is we can have them retake and resend the photograph if it’s not good,” Donigan said. “In most instances, we can get a pretty good photograph in those environments.”
Complications in oral hygiene at a young age can extend far into the future. Taking a further look at the world of oral health through the lens of a pandemic provides information about the links between COVID-19 and future health problems in children.
“Just recently, 90 percent of the people on a ventilator with COVID had periodontal disease,” said Donigan. He also mentioned that many diseases, like diabetes and high blood pressure, have relationships with what happens in the mouth. Donigan explained that many of the children Kintegra sees are already prediabetic in elementary school, and good education early in life is vital to helping them begin to lead healthier lives.
“We see the difference in the children we have seen for many years versus the newcomers, like the kindergarteners, and in some schools, pre-k,” said Boughman. “When we see them yearly, we see a big difference. We also provide education because we all know that education is the most important part of all of this. Once we clean their teeth, [plaque and tartar] will come back quickly. But if we teach them how to take care of their teeth, they can have a lifetime of great [oral health].”
Kintegra Health now works with more than 60 schools in seven school systems ranging from Gaston County to Iredell County.
“Today, at Battleground Elementary in Lincoln County, we’ll probably see about 30 children,” Boughman said. Kintegra expects to reach nearly 7,000 children this year, provided that schools are able to maintain traditional classroom meetings.
Kintegra Health staff place an emphasis on creating a relationship with their patients. “We don’t let them fall through the cracks,” Boughman said. “We call them at least three times, and then even send a postcard.” If further dental work is needed, the dental access program assistant will contact parents to explain what was done and make appointments to return if necessary.
Now more than ever, maintaining consistent communication — and being able to provide oral health treatment, when possible — is crucial to school-based care. Kintegra Health’s practice model has become a prime example of how dedicated oral health professionals can overcome the challenges posed by COVID-19.
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