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Friday, April 12, 2024

A Reason to Smile

Both children and adults often dread sitting in the waiting room at a dentist’s office. But, instead of waiting with shaky knees and gritted teeth, children in Southern Indiana receive the dental care they need at their schools, which helps ease their anxiety.

The St. Mary’s Mobile Dental Clinic, a 40-foot-long RV with a fully functioning dental office and two chairs, makes its rounds to area schools serving children during their school day. Therefore, the clinic helps remove barriers to accessing care such as transportation, interfering work schedules, language (thanks to Spanish-speaking interpreters), and financial aid.

The clinic, which began serving only students in Vanderburgh County in 2000, now offers services to kids living in Posey, Gibson, Warrick, Spencer, and Knox counties and has grown to treating more than 3,800 children’s visits a year. That includes 2,740 cleanings, 2,849 dental exams, and 2,628 X-rays in the 2013 Fiscal Year. In its inaugural year, St. Mary’s Mobile Dental Clinic provided care for more than 1,200 children in Vanderburgh County. Dental forms are sent home through the school and, once they are completed and returned, the clinic schedules the child on its next visit to his/her school.

The St. Mary’s Mobile Dental Clinic runs every Monday through Friday, except holidays and on days with bad weather, and operates from around 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

“Not only do we see kids who wouldn’t normally get treatment, we see young kids and get to the child really early,” says Dr. Julie Collins, a pediatric dentist who has been with the Mobile Clinic for the last four years after retiring from the U.S. Air Force. “We normally ask the parents or guardians about their dental knowledge. The clinic also serves as reminder for parents when they drive by the school and we are there.”

All treated children are sent home with dental forms explaining the day’s treatment received or with information if additional services are needed.

“There are certain things that are beyond our capabilities,” says Dr. John Wittgen, a fellow pediatric dentist who has worked with the clinic since 2010. “There are kids who have to be put in the hospital, have general anesthesia done, then we have oral surgery cases. But the children are going to get taken care of one way or the other.”

Collins works at the clinic all day on Mondays and Tuesdays, while Wittgen treats children every Thursday. Seven other local dentists work on Wednesdays and Fridays. The clinic also staffs two full-time dental hygienists and four part-time hygienists who work on an on-call basis. The clinic’s medical director is Dr. John Anoskey, who has worked with the Mobile Dental Clinic since its inception, and Eric Girten serves as the director of St. Mary’s Community Health Services.

Both Collins and Wittgen say dental cavities are one of the most prevalent ailments in America. The pair treats Evansville children for cavities, but the amount of serious decay is decreasing overall, thanks to the care children are receiving on the Mobile Dental Clinic.

“Where they used to have done 20 charts and would have 40 cavities, now it is 20 charts and 8 cavities,” says Wittgen. “We always say there are three basic things you have to do (to prevent cavities): keep teeth clean, use age appropriate fluorides … and have a proper diet with limited amount of sugars. The No. 1 cause of cavities is liquid sugar. That’s juices, sodas, and sports drinks.”

Dr. Wittgen says juices are deceiving to parents and children because despite their healthy connotations, they are packed with sugars. He advises to read the labels and monitor sugar intake.

Another unique feature of the Mobile Dental Clinic is the staff can perform fillings at the clinic. They also offer X-rays, exams, cleanings, extractions, and other dental work.

“We do as much of the work as we can on the clinic,” says Dr. Collins. “We don’t sedate kids or use laughing gas, but part of our goal is to do the fillings and show the patient we can make it easy and pleasant. It isn’t the most fun thing they have ever done, but they can do it and handle it. And it is not a big deal.”

But perhaps the biggest difference the clinic is making is treating a majority of the underserved population.

“We are treating kids who ordinarily might not get care at all,” says Dr. Collins.

To make this possible, the clinic accepts Indiana Hoosier Healthwise (Medicaid), commercial dental insurance, or private payment. The clinic also offers assistance with Hoosier Healthwise enrollment and financial assistance may be available through St. Mary’s Health Access Advocates. St. Mary’s provides patient advocates who help make sure patients arrive at their follow-up appointments and the advocates can provide Spanish interpretation.

To help serve more children in need, the St. Mary’s Medical Center Foundation, with leadership from the St. Mary’s Foundation Board of Directors, is currently trying to raise $650,000 to purchase a new Mobile Dental Clinic. St. Mary’s is seeking donations, sponsors, and additional fundraising opportunities and gifts.

The St. Mary’s Foundation recently held the Heritage Open Golf Scramble and all of the net proceeds will go toward the campaign to purchase a new three-chair Mobile Dental Clinic with improved X-ray technology. The fundraising goal for the Heritage Open was $120,000 and Randy Capehart, public relations and media relations coordinator at St. Mary’s, says early numbers indicate the clinic surpassed its goal, but additional funds must still be raised.

“It’s very unique and very few communities the size of Evansville have a program like this,” says Dr. Wittgen. “This is something that other cities could only dream about. It’s through the people at the Foundation and St. Mary’s behind this. This is not a money-making program. It’s a break-even and improve our community and help our kids program, and the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp. is 150 percent behind this.”

For more information about the St. Mary’s Mobile Dental Clinic, call 812-485-5843 or visit stmarys.org/dental-care-kids. For more information about giving a gift to the Mobile Dental Clinic Campaign, contact Rick Peltier, Director of Foundation Operations for St. Mary’s Medical Center, at 812-485-4412.

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