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Spiffy Smiles

An innovative oral health program provides cleaner teeth for kids

December 2002

by Aileen Salinas

Last spring, Health Science Center dental hygiene students rounded up every second- and seventh-grader Ė 141 students Ė at Norma Krueger Elementary School in Marion, Texas, for evaluation. One by one, the hygienists in training assessed each studentís oral health and applied sealants to his or her teeth. It was the first implementation of a new school-based oral health program. It is the first program of its kind.

Now, Krueger students have a fully functional oral health clinic on campus equipped with the latest technology, a part-time dentist, a full-time dental hygienist and dental hygiene students who visit once a week on rotation. For some Krueger students, the on-campus clinic offers the only opportunity for dental care. "Dental decay is the largest single disease affecting children," said Kathy Geurink, clinical associate professor of dental hygiene. "High-risk populations experience disproportionate amounts of disease. So we created this pilot program as a means of providing care to South Texas children in need."

Forty-three percent of Krueger Elementaryís student population is classified as economically disadvantaged. "This clinic is so important because Marion is out in a rural area and there arenít a lot of places for people to go to get good health care. The clinic is right on campus. Itís so accessible," Geurink said.

The technology in the clinic is state-of-the-art. The part-time dentist can use digital radiology instead of traditional X-rays to take pictures of patientsí teeth. Images pop up instantly on a computer screen behind the dental chair, allowing staff to stay with a patient. The images quickly provide a clear, precise 3-D view of a patientís teeth and gums. "It gives a more accurate assessment," Geurink said. "We can see tartar on teeth, diagnose decay and determine treatment."

Kathy Geurink, associate professor of dental hygiene (far right), visits students and staff of Norma Krueger Elementary School in Marion. The school is one of two to participate in a program establishing school-based oral health clinics providing treatment, education and prevention services for students.

  Marion Elementary School
Krueger students also have the benefit of a staff of outstanding oral health professionals, including dental hygienist Sherry Jenkins, clinical instructor in dental hygiene, William J. Thrash, D.D.S., a former faculty member in the department of community dentistry, and dental hygiene students who visit on rotation. "More of these types of clinics are needed," said Dr. Thrash, who came out of partial retirement to work at the clinic. "Iím a big supporter of providing services through public health clinics. People have needs, and this is one way of making sure their needs get met. Itís a very worthwhile cause."

Geared toward prevention, treatment and education, the clinicís purpose goes well beyond the initial visit. The clinic will apply sealants to second- and seventh-graders each spring and continue to monitor students as long as they are enrolled at Krueger Elementary. Next year, the program will provide fluoride rinses in classrooms. "This program should contribute to the national Healthy People 2010 goals of increasing dental sealants in childrenís teeth to 50 percent and reducing dental caries in childrenís teeth to 42 percent," Jenkins said.

Because education plays an important role in maintaining a childís health, dental hygiene students will begin visiting classrooms this spring to teach basic oral hygiene instruction, promote the benefits of maintaining healthy teeth and gums and provide nutritional education and early intervention on tobacco use. "We will work with teachers to make oral health education grade specific," Geurink said. "For example, with younger students weíll use hands-on activities to help explain that healthy teeth and gums are important for smiling and talking. Weíll also explain what sealants are and how they are applied to give students a better understanding of what will happen when itís their turn for sealants."

Even before classroom work has begun, the good news about staying healthy is spreading. Cassandra Herrera, 8, thinks healthy teeth and gums are important. "If I donít take care of my teeth, then theyíll fall out," she said. "I want to stay healthy because I donít want to have to eat just mashed potatoes all the time."

Krueger Elementary was the first of two participating schools to open the clinic. John Glenn Elementary opened its fully functioning clinic in November and, like Krueger Elementary, now is in full swing with all of the programís components. Dr. Thrash and dental hygiene students will visit each clinic one day a week. Both clinics have become a reality thanks to a three-year, $250,000 Robert Wood Johnson grant and a collaboration among the Dental School and the dental hygiene department in the School of Allied Health Sciences, Methodist Healthcare Ministries and the Texas Department of Health. If all goes well, the model program will be replicated at other schools in underserved areas of South Texas.


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Updated 12/11/14