Oral health heroes

Tufts recognized for bringing dental care to kids in need

“Got my toothpaste, got my brush. I won’t hurry, I won’t rush. Making sure my teeth are clean front and back and in between. When I brush for quite a while, I will have a happy smile.” Twenty-five preschoolers warbled this dental ditty to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” before an audience of dental care providers, legislators and health care advocates.

Nancy Johnson, a hygienist with the Tufts Dental Community Program, is an “oral health hero” to the kids she serves in western Massachusetts. © JODI HILTON

The performance was part of a celebration in February to kick off the BEST Oral Health Program, a new early childhood preventive dentistry effort for preschoolers in western Massachusetts. Tufts University School of Dental Medicine—represented by Dr. Catherine Hayes, D87, chair of the Department of Public Health and Community Service, and Dr. John Morgan, director of the Tufts Dental Facilities Serving Persons with Special Needs—was recognized for helping to implement the program. Nancy Johnson, a hygienist with the Tufts Dental Community Program, was among those honored as “oral health heroes.”

Life of the party
Not many parties have dentistry going on across the hall, but at this one—held at the Early Childhood Centers of Greater Springfield—teeth cleaning was a main attraction. The mobile dentistry unit next door, staffed by dentists and hygienists from the Tufts Dental Community Program and the Oral Health Impact Project, is the heart of the BEST (Bringing Early-Education Screening and Treatment) Oral Health Program.

“The parents think it’s great,” said Arlene Click, a teacher at the early childhood center who brought five children to the portable dentistry unit for check-ups. “I brought them all at once so they can see what happens and won’t be afraid.”

The first state-funded program of its kind, BEST provides dental care to Hampden County’s preschoolers. And they need it. Kids in Greater Springfield develop tooth decay—already the most common childhood disease in the United States—at twice the national rate. Statewide, a 2004 survey by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children found that half of all third-graders already have tooth decay, and a quarter of those kids attend school with severe, untreated oral infections. Apart from interfering with schoolwork, good nutrition and social interactions, poor oral health is linked to other chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.

“Some children have already had bad experiences at the dentist, and a lot of dentists don’t want to see kids this young, so we’re removing those barriers,” said Johnson, dressed in bright, kid-friendly scrubs.

Dr. Catherine Hayes and Dr. John Morgan of Tufts dental school © JODI HILTON

The BEST program addresses those barriers and others through regular visits to early childhood centers. On-site visits during the school day mean children can receive regular dental screenings, treatment, preventive care and education in a familiar place without their parents having to take time off from work or scramble for transportation—two reasons many children go without regular dental care.

“This is a novel project,” said Hayes, the Delta Dental of Massachusetts Professor in Public Health and Community Service at Tufts. “It’s an opportunity to demonstrate that this is a feasible way to get dental service to kids in need.”

7,000 little patients
BEST also accepts all forms of insurance, including MassHealth, which covers more than one million low-income residents. With state funding for the first time in fiscal year 2007, the program will reach some 7,000 kids in Greater Springfield this year, according to Frank Robinson, executive director of Partners for a Healthier Community and vice chair of the statewide Oral Health Task Force. The program’s advocates hope BEST will serve as a model for similar initiatives across the state and even the country.

Robinson, who served as the event’s emcee, recognized the collaborative efforts of Tufts School of Dental Medicine, Springfield College, Boston University and several advocacy groups to launch the BEST program. “Without that collection of resources, we couldn’t have pulled this off,” he said, inviting representatives from each institution, including John Morgan and Nancy Johnson, to officially kick off the three-year pilot program with a “floss-cutting ceremony.”

“Tufts’ attention to needy populations goes back at least a generation,” said State Rep. John W. Scibak (D-South Hadley), chair of the state’s oral health caucus. Scibek and his colleagues, Sen. Gale D. Candaras (D-Wilbraham) and Sen. Stephen J. Buoniconti (D-West Springfield), were also honored for their efforts to obtain state funding for the program. Candaras, in turn, awarded oral health hero citations from the Commonwealth to five citizens, four early childhood educators and Tufts’ Nancy Johnson.

“These Tufts hygienists are incredibly dedicated. They know the community; they know the school systems, and they know the best way to reach kids,” said Hayes. “Tufts has been out in the community for such a long time. Now others are seeing the needs of the community are great, and Tufts will be there in a leadership role.”

Jacqueline Mitchell is a senior health sciences writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications. She can be reached at jacqueline.mitchell@tufts.edu. This story ran in the Tufts Journal in April 2007.