Sonrisas Dental Health’s Pediatric Dentist Specialist, Dr. Judyth Lee, DMD, sees many children who come to the dentist, only after they begin to experience severe pain.
Even in normal times, parents who bring kids to the dentist because they’re in pain are in emergency mode. Their children’s pain means that they can’t focus in school, can’t eat a balanced diet, and can’t sleep well. Tylenol and ibuprofen provide only temporary relief, and moms and dads are desperate to help their child.
Once initial procedures to address the current dental emergency are done, Dr. Lee and her team pivot to educate families about preventative oral health practices. She finds that parents often have many questions about the role of baby teeth. Historically, many people viewed decay in baby teeth as normal, and it was not prioritized since those teeth are lost eventually anyway. However, as Dr. Lee notes, baby teeth hold spaces for permanent teeth and are essential for healthy eating. When children have baby teeth extracted, the experience can associate dental care with trauma, creating a complicated relationship with dental care for the long term, along with negative impacts on overall mental health and well-being, as a result of missing numerous teeth for many years.
As Dr. Lee says, “I would rather people come to me when things are going well, to take care of preventative home care and catch cavities when they are small and more options are afforded to parents and patients, than wait until the child is in pain and our options for them are limited.”
But with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping through California, Sonrisas Dental Health has complied with federal, state, and regulatory guidelines by closing our offices except to address life-threatening dental emergencies.
To help our patients continue their healthy at-home oral care habits, and to help prevent them from developing a dental emergency during this unusual time, Sonrisas Dental Health is piloting an innovative Oral Health Coaching Virtual Outreach program.
We asked Dr. Lee how her outreach program is going with her pediatric outreach patients.
Dr. Lee combed through her pediatric patient list and identified a pilot group of seven patients who were prescribed antibiotics before the closure, or who had reported pain, or who were supposed to make a follow-up for a known concern. So far, Dr. Lee has piloted her outreach with five families, and Clinic Director Pat Kinniburgh has tested the approach with two additional patients.
Before Dr. Lee calls a patient’s parents, she reads their chart and plans the main points that she would like to discuss. Then, she calls them to see how they are doing: are they in any pain or discomfort? Do they have questions? How is their home oral care routine going? Together with the patient and family, Dr. Lee develops a plan to address any concerns the family might have – with some adaptations during this time when the clinic is closed.
Across the board, patients and their families have been very appreciative of a call during this challenging time. When their child’s dentist calls to see how things are going, it gives parents a sense of community and they appreciate that Sonrisas cared to check on them.
Although this pilot was created to meet a need that resulted from mandated closure, Dr. Lee sees a potential positive impact on patients and their long-term oral health. In the long term, once our society returns to normal, having ongoing case management for patients who need to be followed more closely could lead to better outcomes – but we would need to try it to see!
For the time being, checking in with patients to make sure they are out of pain and they feel that they have a dental home they can reach out to with concerns are early indications that the program is a success!