Donation makes expansion of school-based sealant program a reality

Published: Monday, Feb. 4 2013 12:20 a.m. MST

Debby Simpson, dental hygienist for Sealants for Smiles, applies sealant to the teeth of Celeste Padilla at Franklin Elementary School in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013. Sealants for Smiles received a $100,000 donation from Intermountain Healthcare to increase access to oral health education and preventative dental services for at risk children.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Candace Haws wipes down the portable dental chair between each patient. She readies her equipment and calls her next school-age patient to sit down.

Each child approaches the chair nervously but leaves about 10 minutes later — with a cleaner, healthier smile.

"Some of their parents can't afford regular cleanings and checkups for them," said Haws, a dental hygienist with Utah's only school-based preventive dental program Sealants for Smiles. "This is actually a great way to do preventive dental work, provide education and get ahead of the game for some of them."

She said it is surprising how many students have mouth pain or bad decay that has gone unnoticed for some time and needs further, even immediate attention.

The nonprofit's main goal is to place sealants — a thin, plastic coating — on the new molars of second- and sixth-graders' teeth, to prevent future decay. The population served is typically those from low-income households or who qualify for federal programs for free or reduced price lunch.

Sealants for Smiles President Dr. Roger Adams said the group is "at-risk" because of a lack of access to proper dental care.

He estimates that since it was founded in 2007, the program has led to a more than 23 percent reduction in unmet dental needs in Utah communities and helped avert more than $75 million in potential dental costs.

A recent Pew Center report indicates that too few children in Utah had access to low-cost sealant programs. Such programs, including Sealants for Smiles and one initiated by the state's Family Dental Plan, frequently run up against budget constraints and are only able to help 25 to 49 percent of schools in the state with at-risk students.

The nationwide goal is to provide access to sealants at 75 percent of schools within low-income regions, whose students are presumably at greater risk for decay, the report states.

A $100,000 donation from Intermountain Healthcare's Community Care Foundation announced Wednesday will help Sealants for Smiles expand coverage to nearly triple the students it now serves, Adams said.

"Intermountain Healthcare cares about the health of the community, and we know we can't be healthy by just delivering care through our emergency rooms, through our hospitals and our clinics," said Mikelle Moore, president of Intermountain's Community Care Foundation. She said education and outreach is a critical part of impacting a person's choices of healthy habits.

Moore said the donation, which will be paid over three years, is one of the largest the foundation has provided to a nonprofit but will help Sealants for Smiles "take a big jump forward" in an area of community need that can be measurably impacted.

More than 64,000 students have participated in Sealants for Smiles' oral health education program, with 35,265 evaluated by a licensed dental professional. In addition to fluoride application procedures, the program has placed 85,690 sealants on 25,012 at-risk Utah children between July 2007 and December 2012.

Franklin Elementary School Principal Peggy Paterson said the increase in dental care has led to a marked improvement in attendance at the Title I school, which already struggles with a high level of mobility as families frequently move in and out of the area. Sealants for Smiles has been visiting the school for two-week increments for the past three years.

"There is nothing at-risk about them in their ability to learn and perform," she said, adding that in addition to impacting attendance, dental problems have the potential to impact a student's concentration level throughout the day.

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