The number one childhood disease isn’t leukemia or allergies or even asthma. It’s dental disease, according to the National Children’s Oral Health Foundation.

It is preventable, but, of course, only if the child sees a dentist. More kids are in Houston because of a partnership between Memorial Hermann Health System and five area school districts that makes sure children in poorer, medically underserved neighborhoods get regular dental care and a springboard to a healthier future.

The dental care-on-wheels program received a 2016 AHA NOVA Award, which recognizes hospital-led partnerships that are helping to build healthier communities.

Three 40-foot vans rotate between 10 school-based clinics to provide a full complement of preventive and restorative care year round at no-cost to about 2,500 needy students.

A community health survey pointed to the need for mobile dental care, and the first Memorial Hermann van was on the road to local schools in 2000. Each van is staffed by a dentist and one or two assistants.

Neglecting oral health can lead to chronic health issues such as diabetes, cardiopulmonary disease, respiratory problems and – according to some recent research – even Alzheimer’s disease, observes Deborah Ganelin, the health system’s director of community benefit. “We say that healthy smiles lead to healthy bodies,” she notes.  

The dental vans build on the health system’s more than 20-year-old Memorial Hermann Health Centers for Schools’ partnership with area schools that is designed to break down barriers to better care. The partnership offers a medical home for uninsured children and a secondary access point for those with insurance, offering primary care and mental health counseling, among other services.

“We started school-based health care because to improve health status you need to reduce poverty,” says Carol Paret, the health system’s senior vice president and community officer. “The more students we help get through school and into good jobs, the better off our community is.”

Healthy kids make for better and more attentive students, says Gwen Johnson, the Houston Independent Schools’ manager of health and medical services. She says the schools strongly support the program because they see it contributing to improved grades, fewer suspensions, detentions and days absent.

“It’s a strong partnership because we share common goals, and, of course Memorial Hermann has the resources to connect directly with the children and their families,” Johnson says. “Health care is a key entry point into the school district.”    

She noted that both the departments of Education and Health and Human Services (HHS) have hailed the collaboration between the Houston health system and school districts as one of the best models of school-based health care in the nation.

Patients are on a three-to-six-month recall program after their initial visit to the dental van. Each month nearly 2,000 dental procedures are performed. According to the health system, 14% of students treated during fiscal year 2015 were seeing a dentist for the first time, and 61% of those first-time patients had cavities.

Memorial Hermann’s Mahasti Chalajour is the first dentist a lot of those kids have ever seen. She worked in public health, but prefers her past five years with the health system’s dental van. Her patients range from pre-K through 12th grade.

Chalajour prefers reaching children at a younger age, because she is able to continue with them over time and, as a result, is able to achieve more. She also is a constant educator for both children and parents, because it does no good to fix a mouth and then have it undone by continued bad habits.

“The most rewarding thing for me is seeing the smile on their beautiful faces,” Chalajour says. “We are not just changing the children’s oral hygiene. We are changing their attitudes and boosting their self-esteem.”

Measuring itself against HHS’ Healthy People 2020 objectives, Memorial Hermann has made significant strides toward better dental hygiene for the children it serves through the program. Only 6.3% of children ages 6 to 9 have tooth decay or cavities when they return for visits. The Healthy 2020 goal is for 49% or less for children in that age range to have tooth decay or cavities at recall.

“We have a story to tell and outcomes to share,” Ganelin says. “School-based health care can be rewarding for any hospital.”

Interested in applying for a 2017 AHA NOVA Award? The deadline is Dec. 2. Click here to learn more.