Local Dental Clinics Bridge the Gap to Access Oral Health Services
Jun 6, 2023
Emma Dugas
Asian girl holding a tooth toy with a smiling face

Looking for a kid-friendly explanation for why oral hygiene is important the next time your young one bristles at brushing their teeth? Meet the sugar bug!

A “sugar bug” is the common nickname given to bacteria in your mouth that run rampant if you don’t brush your teeth. Every time you eat or drink, these bugs feast on the leftover sugar or starch in your mouth. Byproducts of their meal — plaque and tartar — weaken tooth enamel and may lead to cavities.

“Our goal is to make prevention more common than treatment, and the sugar bug analogy helps with that,” says Dr. Sepi Taghvaei, executive vice president of operations with Dientes Community Dental Care. “It teaches kids how good habits, like brushing and flossing, can help prevent cavities. It also makes them feel like active participants in their health.”

Community dental clinics, like Dientes, play a critical role in this type of early health education. As safety-net providers for children with Medi-Cal, these clinics regularly offer school-based outreach programs where students as young as six learn the basics of oral hygiene.

“There is an undeniable connection between oral health and overall health,” says Bindi Gandhi, director of community health for Sutter in the Bay Area. “Sutter Health understands this link and the importance of affordable, high-quality dental care for people who are uninsured or underinsured and that is why we support these vital community programs.”

One danger of bacteria in your mouth, is that it can enter the blood stream and cause inflammation in other parts of the body. Studies have found that poor oral health can lower the immune system and put people at higher risk for respiratory infections, dementia, cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and more.

Sutter Health has invested in multiple community dental clinics since 2019, to improve overall health of vulnerable populations.

Sutter has a long history of working to improve the health of the underserved through community benefit activities and programs. These efforts are based on needs identified through Community Health Needs Assessments, which have routinely shown that dental care is an unmet priority for many Northern Californians.

Sutter Health conducts Community Health Needs Assessments every three years to gain an in-depth look into priority health needs within a region, identify communities of concern and vulnerable populations where community benefit investments are needed most. The 2019 community health needs assessments for Santa Cruz and San Mateo Counties prioritized oral health. That assessment was followed by another in 2022, which identified access to services as a key priority.

Sugar Bugs Have Met their Match

Dientes’ outreach program provides dental care at nearly 30 locations including schools and juvenile hall in Santa Cruz county. Another Sutter Health investee, Sonrisas Dental Health, visits the classrooms of over 40 Title 1 elementary schools, preschools and after-school programs in San Mateo County each year and began offering virtual oral health education during the pandemic.

“We not only show children and their families how to take care of their teeth and gums, but we also screen kids for cavities or infection,” said Dr. Bonnie Jue, community engagement director for Sonrisas. Oral health assessments and exams take place at school sites and at pop-up events designed to decrease barriers to access.

“We’ve had up to 20 community volunteers and staff members conduct a single screening event where we’ve found problems that need immediate referral and follow-up at a comprehensive dental clinic.”

Comprehensive Dental ‘Home’

Beyond their role in education and screening, both Dientes and Sonrisas operate clinics where people of all ages can receive comprehensive oral care. This is especially important as many adults don’t have health insurance that includes dental coverage.

Services are the same that any dental office would offer; from X-rays, cleanings and fluoride varnish to specialty care like root canals and extractions performed by an oral surgeon or endodontist.

Dientes operates five clinics in Santa Cruz County; the most recent of which opened in December 2022. That clinic, built exclusively for Dientes, received support from Sutter Health through a $200,000 capital investment – early funding that became a catalyst for later donations.

Another Dientes clinic, offering completely free services, is co-located with Housing Matters homeless shelters as part of the Coral Street campus in Santa Cruz.

Sonrisas, which was founded to expand dental care to the children of farmworkers on the Coast, operates two clinics that now serve low-income and marginalized individuals of all ages. The Peninsula clinic is located in San Mateo and the Coastside clinic is located in Half Moon Bay.

For more information on Dientes visit: https://dientes.org/

For more information on Sonrisas visit: https://www.sonrisasdental.org/





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