USC University of Southern California

Economic Distress Raises Oral Health Risks

By Anjetta McQueen

The community-based work of the USC School of Dentistry runs more on kindness than line-items in a budget.

Grants are the main source of support for the broad range of programs that allow students, faculty and alumni to provide quality dental care to the underserved communities in Los Angeles.

Thus, the School is constantly searching for funding opportunities to support many of the community health efforts, whether they are housed in the dental school facility or outside in many of the mobile units or community clinics.

“There is an opportunity for the communities at large to take some ownership and responsibility for the oral health of the community,” said Jennifer Holtzman, director of the Neighborhood Mobile Dental Van Prevention Program (NMDVPP), also known as the Sealant Van.

Fortunately, said Holtzman, community members have risen to the challenge, even in tough economic times.

Last fall, Joyce Petteway, a retired school nurse with the Los Angeles Unified School District, donated funds to a wealth of School community health programs.  Thousands of schoolchildren in need of oral health care receive it at programs for children such as the Pediatric Dentistry Clinic and the Sealant Van.  The mobile dental programs travel to schools and neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles to provide children with free oral health screenings, dental hygiene education, preventive dental sealants, and vouchers to help cover the cost of follow-up care.

Holtzman recalled a schoolchild with deep cavities and no access to dental care. Her mother worked long hours at a minimal wage job, and did not have the funds to pay for care. The dollars from Petteway — and other donors who are able and willing — helped pay for that care.

“People are having to make tough choices: Do I go to the dentist to take care of the hole in my tooth, or do I take my chances,” Holtzman said.

More people probably are taking the chance that the tooth won’t get worse, or wont’ hurt, Holtzman said. Sometimes, she said,  families must even decide how many toothbrushes can they afford to buy. Recently, the School simply supplied an extra toothbrush to a little girl who was sharing her toothbrush with her sister.

Adults also find themselves helped by USC School of Dentistry’s community care, which includes the USC+Union Rescue Mission Dental Clinic (USC-URM), which cares for the homeless of Downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row; the USC Mobile Dental Clinic, which provides care throughout California; and the Maternal, Child and Adolescent (MCA) Family Center for Infecommcarectious Diseases and Virology, which provides care to families affected by or at risk for HIV.

“Every bit helps,” said Niel Nathason, Director of Community and Special Projects at the USC School of Dentistry. “A few hundred dollars can cover the lab bills for a set of dentures, which can change the life of a previously homeless person seeking employment.

Further, community programs generally do not receive much “hard money” from the School’s fiscal budget. Some faculty salaries are covered, but supplies and other costs come from fund-raising through grants and corporate and individual donors.

The troops in this quest include hundreds of students who donate their time and passion to tackling the community’s oral health care problems.

“Our dental students are terrific- they volunteer in droves,” said Holtzman, who described the USC students as working at “maximum capacity.” “It’s part of our ethic. I’ts just what our dental students expect from themselves and each other.”

Nathason added, “ We always need caring and experienced dentists as volunteers . . ., and for those who are able to, as donors.”

The problem of funding is only made worse by society’s refusal to make oral health a high priority. Most tooth decay is preventable with simple, inexpensive strategies, but society rarely encourages prevention.

Holtzman said good oral health care is usually the last on the list, while thousands of dollars are spent on oral cancer, diabetes, and other diseases so profoundly affected by or tied to the failure to receive basic dental care.

Nathason said although requests for care have risen about 20 percent, the USC-URM clinic faces an 18 percent decrease in its operating budget. In addition, the State of California, in the throes of its own fiscal crisis, is cutting back funds used for DentiCal, which support dental insurance for indigent adults.

Last year, Holtzman wrote to 42 organizations that fund oral health care for children: “I got one positive response.”

 “We can all do something to improve the oral health of the community,” she said. “It makes all of our lives less rich when people are unable to be healthy because they can’t eat because of oral pain or missing teeth; or battling dental infections.”