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Lower-income students have a shot at quality dental care

Dr. Larry Caplin said tooth decay is the most common childhood disease. It's five times more common than asthma and results in 51 million lost school hours every year.
By Natasha Clark

Assistant Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD Lower-income children in Springfield have access to quality dental care thanks to BEST, a collaborative effort between Partners for a Healthier Community, Tufts University and the Oral Health Impact Project (OHIP).

Square One, formerly Springfield Day Nursery, is one of the local early education facilities in Hampden County taking part in Bringing Early-Education Screening and Treatment (BEST). Square One's King Street location was a pilot site where dental health was incorporated into the school day. Teacher Vicky Danio's class participated in a nine-week curriculum.

"I talked with them about their mouth and what's in their mouth," Danio said.

She explained that she used puppets to relay in the information to the preschool-aged students in a fun way that would capture their attention.

"I have a puppet, 'Smiley the Super Puppet.' They learn [about] brushing teeth, fluoride and teeth and mouth space," Danio said.

With parental consent, students have full access to dental treatments such as fillings and X-rays right on school grounds. Dentists choosing to participate in the program visit the schools every six months. Hygenists and assistants also come on a regular basis. Many students in Tufts higher education program provide the initial treatment. Students needing follow-ups or more extensive work are referred to dental offices when necessary. The program is at no cost to the families who decide to participate and having insurance is also not a prerequisite.

OHIP founder Dr. Larry Caplin started a similar program in the Philadelphia school district last year. He's been working in dental care for those who have poor access to quality care for 17 years.

"Finding dentists to work with is difficult. We're always looking for help and for good quality dentists to be involved in the program. Recruiting is one of our toughest components. The dentists that are doing this are really doing fantastic work for patients who need the care," Caplin said.

He stated that there is a huge disparity in health care between those who have insurance and those that do not. He said those who are economically sound are concerned with things such as whether their teeth are white and straight enough. For those without the means to receive quality dental care, there basic concern is if they are even going to retain their teeth. "The intent of this program is to make a generational change and that requires changing perceptions of what you should expect going to the doctor, making the care available to all [and seeing that] barriers are broken down," Caplin said.

Partner for a Healthier Community reached out through a grant to the Commonwealth, Tufts University and OHIP to get the program rolling. They ran a similar program under a another name in previous years.

Caplin said they are hoping that the program will become a model for the state. Other Massachusetts communities involved in identical programs are New Bedford, Lowell and Cambridge.

"The kids have been really receptive. They are more aware of their mouth. They say things like 'Look at how clean my teeth are,'" Danio added. "The name of the program says it all. It is the BEST oral health program out there."

For more information on OHIP, visit