Health & Science

UT Brings Dentists To Houston Schools

What chronic childhood disease is five times more common than asthma and seven times more common than hay fever? What is a disease that causes pain, deformity and millions of hours in school absences? It's tooth decay. Yes, cavities are still a silent epidemic in this country, particularly among poor children. KUHF Health and Science reporter Carrie Feibel looked into what Houston's dental school is doing about the problem.

Because so many children can’t visit a dentist, the dentists are coming to them. A mobile dental clinic on wheels is parked outside Tijerina Elementary School on the East Side of Houston.

Dental student Jenny Crow examining
Dental student Jenny Crow examines a fifth-grader’s teeth during a screening outside Tijerina Elementary School.

Inside, fifth graders plop down into the dental chairs for a check-up.

Dentist: “Does it hurt back there when you brush, does it bleed?”

Student: “Where? Over here? Yes. It just hurts really bad.”

Dentist: “You know, you’re getting two molars back there …”

Dental students, supervised by a professor, screen for cavities and other problems.

The worst cases will eventually be scheduled for free treatment at the University of Texas School of Dentistry in the medical center.

“This program serves those children that fall between the cracks.”

Cathy Vita is the school nurse for more than 500 children. She says many of the students are uninsured or undocumented, or their parents work too many jobs to take them to the dentist on a regular basis.

“If a child is sitting in a classroom in pain, they’re not thinking and concentrating on the work that the teachers are trying to deliver to them. So that’s a basic need that’s not being met. And yes it impedes in their education.”

Abigail shields her eyes
Kindergartener Abigail Aguirre shields her eyes from the light during a free dental screening for kindergarten students at Tijerina Elementary in Houston.

By federal law, Medicaid must cover dental care for children. Still, only two-thirds of Texas children on Medicaid ever see a dentist.

Experts say that’s because many dentists won’t participate in the program because of low reimbursement. 

And there’s a shortage of dentists in rural and poor areas.

Even private insurance can fall short.

A national study found that 30 percent of kids with insurance don’t have dental care under their plans. To fill the gap, UT now has two dental vans circulating to schools and community centers in the Houston area.  

“You see this? Those are the teeth bugs.”

Dental student Jenny Crow shows a fifth grader the plaque that has built up on his teeth. 

“They’re going to eat away your teeth if you don’t brush them off, okay? And I see them mostly on your front teeth here, so just work on getting to those front teeth, nice circular motions. Okay? But otherwise it looks like you do a really good job.”

Dental professor Hareeti Gill says it’s wrong to assume that caring for baby teeth isn’t important, just because they eventually fall out. She says baby teeth that decay can cause serious infections, and problems with chewing and speech development. Untreated baby teeth can also lead to orthodontic problems in adult teeth.

Dentists say a child should first see a dentist no later than age 1.

From the KUHF Health and Science Desk, I’m Carrie Feibel.