The St. David's Foundation Dental Program stands as a beacon of highly accessible and evidence-based oral healthcare. It extends diagnosis, treatment, prevention and oral health education for disadvantaged children in Central Texas counties who lack access to quality, affordable oral healthcare.

The Mobile Dental Program is operated by St. David's Foundation, a community-focused and equity-driven organization committed to reducing health disparities in Central Texas. Funding more than $80 million through grantmaking and programs, the dental program works to address one of our region’s most pressing issues – access to quality healthcare. While tooth decay is one of the most common chronic diseases of childhood, oral healthcare is simply out of reach for many families.

Through a unique partnership with St. David's HealthCare, proceeds from the hospital system are reinvested back into local communities with a goal of fostering health equity in Central Texas through strategic investments and action. This work is grounded in listening to and learning from the community to better understand our region’s health needs – particularly among historically-underserved populations.

Transforming communities through mobile dental care

Since the Mobile Dental Program began in 2000, the team has conducted over 227,000 dental visits, treated over 100,000 patients and placed over 93,000 sealants, totaling nearly $100 million invested in dental treatment for the local community.

“We started with one van and now we operate a fleet of 10 mobile units. We're the largest charity-based mobile dental program in the country and we provide highly accessible evidence-based oral health care to children in five Central Texas counties,” Lead Dentist Dr. Rebecca Scott said. “We typically visit Title I elementary schools, serving those economically disadvantaged children providing exams, X-rays, fillings, cleanings, sealants and oral health education.”

Many families find dental care financially inaccessible. The program's goal is to remove the common barriers – cost and transportation. The program’s dental team works to address immediate dental needs and also has the opportunity to educate students on oral hygiene practices to instill positive habits that will last a lifetime.

“Many of our patients are seeing a dentist for the first time. We see a lot of migrant families, [with many] of those from Honduras [and] El Salvador. We recently saw one young child who was separated from most of her family who remain in their home country. We're talking about a nine-year-old child who had never had any access to dental care. It's really patient-led care, so we let her kind of dictate the pace,” Dr. Scott said. “There was a point where her needs were bigger than what we were able to provide through the dental vans and we have a great program called Complex Care Program that we are navigating her through.”

Patient-centered approach in Bastrop County

Bastrop County faces a dental care shortage, with only three dentists per 10,000 residents compared to nearby Travis County's seven. Tooth decay is a common childhood ailment, potentially leading to eating and learning difficulties if untreated. Community water fluoridation is one of the most practical, cost-effective, equitable, and safe measures communities can take to prevent tooth decay. Unfortunately, about 84% of Bastrop County does not have fluoridated water.

Enrollment at Bastrop ISD grew 4.32% from 2017-2018 to 2021-2022, adding over 200 students. During the same period, economic disadvantage in the district increased from 69% to 70%, with Cedar Creek Elementary School reaching 92%. Thus, the Mobile Dental Program focused on Cedar Creek Elementary School for summer 2023.

“As a non-profit, we are able to offer all our dental services for free with no cost to the families. The important element of ensuring the program is accessible is meeting children where they are – removing the barrier of transportation,” Lead Dentist Dr. Yana Kushner said. “During our typical school year, we visit during school hours so parents don’t have to take off work. They don't have to worry about those logistics or transportation issues. We are truly focused on what the patient needs and it’s deeply rewarding to see the positive impact it has on the child and family.”

About the Complex Care program:
  • When more extensive dental care is needed, beyond what the Foundation can treat on the dental vans, patients are referred to the Complex Care Program. Examples of treatment may include complex extractions, crowns or endodontic treatment. The Foundation works with a network of private dentists in the Austin area who volunteer their time to treat patients at no cost.
The Complex Care program has a 3-step process:
  • The referral process: Once the dentist determines a patient needs extensive dental care, the patient is referred to the Complex Care Program.
  • Coordination of care: A Community Dental Health Coordinator serves as the main point of contact connecting the patient to a dental clinic.
  • Continuity of care and oral health education: Additionally, the coordinators ensure the patient and parent/guardian has reliable transportation and provide important oral health education.
"Understanding each child and their family on a personal level is crucial. We don't treat them as mere patient numbers; instead, we build trusting relationships and create a safe, non-judgmental environment. We meet families where they are and are open about what we can or cannot provide,” Dr. Kushner said. “It's a challenging but essential aspect of our program, especially as we deal with a significant number of patients. Many of them, particularly in rural communities, haven't been to a dentist until later in life. So, we start step by step, like teaching a new language. It’s truly an honor to do the work we do.”

Discover ways to support the St. David's Dental Program here.

The above story was produced by Multi-Platform Journalist Holly Galvan with Community Impact's Storytelling team with information solely provided by the local business as part of their "sponsored content" purchase through our advertising team.