By: Jean Johnson for Dental1
Don’t expect to get dental implants in a mobile unit, but if you’re tight on time or budget constraints have the family in a bind, the van parked near your place of employment or school might be just what the dentist ordered.
The phenomenon is a relatively new development but one that seems to have a solid foundation beneath it. That’s why mobile dental units are something to keep an eye on. If entrepreneurs have their way, dental vans won’t seem at all odd to members of the next generation – both those without sufficient funds to see a family dentist and workers whose bosses don’t want them to take a whole afternoon off work for a 30 minute dental procedure.
Indeed, Johnny Hart, creator of BC and Wizard of Id, drew a cartoon in 1974 that captures the spirit. It’s quizzical fellow in a top hat, white tie, and tux peddling a unicycle. In one hand, the figure’s holding an oversized toothbrush as if he were delivering a dozen roses.
The Sixties, Reaching Out, and the First Mobile Dental Unit from USC
The idea of dentistry in a van isn’t new. Forty-one years ago in 1965, John Ronnau, DDS and faculty member of the University of Southern California School of Dentistry’s oral surgery program, organized a clinic on wheels that initially provided emergency dentistry and dental disease prevention information to a community in Mexico.
|Until your next dentist’s appointment practice good oral care:|
Brush and floss thoroughly before bed:
One of the reasons dentists tell us to brush and floss so rigorously before bed is because at night the saliva production which continually rinses the teeth during the day decreases significantly. Based on that theory, people who experience anything that creates dry conditions in their mouths need to be extra vigilant.
Watch the medications you take:
Many medications, including more than 300 common drugs, can reduce the amount of saliva in your mouth, resulting in dry mouth. They also can make your saliva ropy or thicker in consistency.
Patients with asthma often breathe through their mouths, particularly when sleeping, which can result in dry mouth and increased plaque formation.
Ronnau’s family joined him in the ventures as did his students who used innovative ways to outfit the dental office on wheels. “Creative students solved problems raised by remote sites,” states a university commentary on what’s known as the USC Mobile Clinic program. “They devised the octopus, a method for running a few air-turbine hand pieces with a paint compressor, which allowed eight students to work at once. They mounted an old x-ray unit on the back of a truck to improve their diagnoses.”
Of course, all the best x-rays and drills and suction don’t matter if clinicians can’t get their patients’ mouths front and center. So, “a Cal State Long Beach industrial design student, inspired by his dental student friend, designed a portable, corrugated cardboard dental chair. These easily assembled chairs weighed less than 10 pounds and supported up to 250 pounds.”
We’re not sure what sort of lighting system these early innovators came up with, but apparently it was effective enough for those involved to get a birds-eye view. Consequently, when in 1968 the USC students “identified an underserved population closer to home, the program’s focus shifted to serving the dental needs of migrant workers in Central and Southern California.”
In the ensuing years USC’s mobile clinic program continued to morph into a service that more fully met the needs of the community of low-income children it ultimately decided it wanted to serve. The number of weekend clinics grew from 20 to 30 a year, mid-week clinics were included, and in addition to agricultural areas, schools were included in the rounds.
The enlarged mission was funded by a combination of public and private contributions, including a gift of $105,000 from a 1925 alumni, G. Donald Montgomery, DDS. This “first self-contained and fully equipped motor coach with wheelchair lift,” that was purchased with Montgomery’s donation and matching funds from Delta Dental and USC, is now affectionately known as Monty.
While current data is unavailable, USC does state that “during the 2001-02 school year the Mobile Clinic provided close to $1.9 million dollars of care to 19,000 children in 24 locations throughout California. More than 95 percent of the children seen had their treatment completed. Over 90 percent of the children visiting the USC Mobile Clinic are seeing a dentist for the first time.”
From USC to San Juan Capistrano and Virginia
The work focused on underserved children continues even as it has merged with the business sector. In this case Sullivan Schein, a global purveyor of dental equipment and supplies, donated use of their Tomorrow’s Dental Office Today mobile unit to the California and Virginia dental associations for use in their access programs in 2004.
Part of the idea is that Sullivan Schein gets to demonstrate to dentists doing charity work how digital technology and software can streamline dentistry in their private practices. The other part of the bargain is that the company achieves its goal of philanthropic service to the community its products serve.
“Since its inception,” Tim Sullivan, president of Sullivan Schein told the American Dental Association, “Tomorrow Dental Office Today was designed to not only help advance the dental profession, but also to serve as a fully-functional, mobile dental office and resource for voluntary dental treatment initiatives.
“We’re honored to have partnered with the Virginia Dental Association and the California Dental Association in support of these important outreach efforts,” Sullivan added. “It is through partnerships such as this, which mobilize the resources of the public, private, and professional sectors, that we are able to help improve community health outcomes and increase oral health awareness.”
The effort takes no slouchy commitment. Sullivan Schein needs some 20 hours and at least three staff members to get the van ready for full-service dentistry. More, in just a single day-long visit to the elementary school near the historic mission at San Juan Capistrano seven dentists, two hygienists, and two staff members donated care estimated at almost $4,500.
According to Santa Ana dentist Denise Habjan, DDS, the Sullivan Schein unit “is quite nice. For once we have room to move around. With the chairs and the latest equipment on hand, it makes it a lot easier to do dentistry.”
Similarly, Ethan Fox, DDS who drove 50 miles from Escondido for the day’s event observed, “This is great because everything is right here. Usually you just have a few supplies and are limited with what you can do. This is impressive.”
“These are students who really need help,” added Ryan Vahdani of Santa Margarita, summing the experience of working in the Tomorrow Dental Office Today van. “This facility is good because it has the finest equipment we can use, and it’s nice to have two chairs. These are low-income families, and they rely on the goodwill of society. This unit can help us give care to a lot of kids.”
As Sullivan observed, partnerships between business and dental professionals are pushing the envelope in terms of how dentistry functions and what the public’s perception of an office visit is. In the second half of this series on this emerging trend, we’ll trace the entrepreneurial side of mobile dentistry niche and show how the risk-takers leading the pack are hoping it will pencil out.