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Mobile program provides essential dental services

For more information, visit or call East Bay Community Action at 401-847-7821. (Photos by Christopher Allen)

A mobile dental program provides a convenient alternative for thousands of Rhode Island children who would otherwise be deprived of much-needed dental care.

A 40-foot-long, eight-foot-wide truck called the “Molar Express,” equipped with two mobile dental units, was donated by the New England chapter of the Ronald Mac-Donald House of Charities, which partners with local health care and nonprofit organizations. agencies by providing resources that can be directed to traditionally disadvantaged communities.

Locally, the program is run in conjunction with the nonprofit East Bay Community Action Program. Two other non-profit healthcare providers cover Woonsocket, West Warwick, parts of South County and the majority of Providence County.

The truck travels statewide on three-month regional rotations. This month, the Molar Express will be in the Linden Park parking lot in Middletown on Tuesdays, August 23 and 30, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Anyone between the ages of 2 and 21 can make an appointment.

According to the Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook, the annual publication that collects health, housing, and education data on Rhode Island children, 62,000 children and young adults enrolled in subsidized dental programs like Rite Smiles or paid Medicaid received some form of dental care in 2021, representing half of the approximately 124,000 children enrolled.

However, whether due to ignorance of subsidized offers available, lack of local providers who accept their insurance, or due to immigration status, it has been estimated that thousands of children in Rhode Island are foregoing care. dental. Statewide health surveys showed that in 2020, 398 children were treated in emergency rooms for dental conditions. Of these, 79 had to be hospitalized, with an oral health problem as the main reason.

At the helm of the Molar Express is James “Jimmy” Houle, the program’s trucker. The Molar Express tries to cover “everything on the bridge,” he said, stopping at convenient community locations, such as schools and daycares. He said between 12 and 20 patients a day are seen during summer visits, and many more during the school year.

Houle has seen an array of patients who, while predominantly younger, can run the international gamut, given the nature of Aquidneck Island as a destination for workers and students traveling to places like the naval base. “We get a lot of Navy kids from other countries,” he said.

That day, dental assistant Tara Arpin was between appointments. In the adjacent room, a pair of dental hygienists stood over a boy who needed fillings, while his mother sat nearby.

Arpin said the dozen or more young patients they see during the summer don’t compare to what they encounter during the school year when they visit schools, with staff members often working non-stop to providing cleanings, cavity fillings and sealants.

“We go there constantly,” she said. “We often see children who need a bite to work with. Sometimes this is the only dental care a child will receive.

The program is free for those who are uninsured. If a patient has Medicaid or a private insurance plan, they will recover the costs when possible.

“It’s a big help for those who usually pay on a sliding scale, especially if they need a lot of work,” she said.

Arpin was asked if kids dread riding a desk on wheels.

“Sometimes a patient will be absolutely petrified,” she said. “In some cases, we try to match them with someone they trust, like a friend or [someone] they are comfortable with. We do our best to make them comfortable in the chair.

Sometimes there is also a language barrier. The mother visiting her son that day spoke limited English, but a dental assistant answered questions and eased her concerns. If needed, staff will also use digital translation apps.

Arpin said children should see a dentist “as soon as they have teeth.” She has treated infants as young as 16 months old. And while a host of healthcare programs exist to bridge the gap between those who are up to date with dental work and those who have postponed it, these initiatives could always be expanded, she said.

“We could always use more [staff and funding]she said, adding that the Molar Express hosted more than 100 students from Pell Elementary School last year.

“We could just stay at Pell Elementary for half the school year,” she said.

The mobile unit is equipped with most of what one would see in a traditional dentist’s office. However, it does not provide oral surgery or sedation.

“Our focus is preventative,” Arpin said. “We always try to do everything we can before it gets to the point where we have to refer them to someone else.”

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