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Dental clinics for those in need

Tonight we report on a highly successful pilot program for children's health in Sonoma County, California called the Pediatric Dental Initiative (PDI) (http://www.pedidental.org/). Dr. Kathryn Foster, a pediatrician long interested in preventive medicine for children, noticed that some of the biggest unmet needs of underprivileged children had to do with a lack of access to adequate dental care. Even though they involve baby teeth, untreated cavities in small children can cause enormous pain, disrupt learning and family life, even lead to infections throughout the body that can become extremely serious.

California, like most states, has a dental care payment plan for poor children. But many dentists say it pays so little and involves so much paperwork that they lose money with every child they see. As a result many underprivileged children get no regular dental care and wind up with such extensive dental problems that they must be treated with general anesthesia. If that is done in a hospital, it is hugely expensive. That's where PDI plays its special role. Funded by public grants and private donations, its only mission is to offer dental care under general anesthesia, mostly to children and occasionally to disabled adults at no charge. Because of its single mission, it is highly efficient and the cost per patient is about half what it would be in a hospital.

PDI gets patients from many sources. Some parents travel hundreds of miles -- some even from neighboring states. But one of the major partnerships involves the WIC (for Women's Infants and Children) program nearby (http://www.sonoma-county.org/health/wic/en/contact.htm). WIC is a nation-wide effort (http://www.fns.usda.gov/wic/) run mostly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that supports health and nutritional initiatives. The Santa Rosa office sometimes runs dental clinics from mobile vans that visit or dentists who volunteer their time. In addition to referring the serious cases for the general anesthesia, the office teaches classes in proper nutrition and dental hygiene to help parents learn how to prevent those cavities before they cause such serious problems.