A mobile dental program is providing a convenient alternative for thousands of Rhode Island children who would otherwise be without much-needed dental care.
A 40-foot long, eight-foot-wide truck called the “Molar Express,” equipped with two mobile dental units, was donated by the New England chapter of the Ronald Mac- Donald House of Charities, which partners with local nonprofits and healthcare agencies by providing resources that can be directed to traditionally underprivileged communities.
Locally, the program is run in conjunction with the nonprofit East Bay Community Action Program. Two other nonprofit healthcare providers cover Woonsocket, West Warwick, parts of South County and the majority of Providence County.
The truck travels throughout the state on three-month, regional rotations. This month, the Molar Express will be in the parking lot of Linden Park in Middletown on Tuesday, Aug. 23 and 30, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Anyone between the ages of 2 and 21 can make an appointment.
According to the Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook, the annual publication that collects data on Rhode Island children regarding health, housing and education, 62,000 children and young adults enrolled in subsidized dental programs like Rite Smiles or Medicaid fee-for-service received some form of dental care in 2021, representing half of the approximately 124,000 children enrolled.
However, whether because of ignorance of the subsidized offerings available, a lack of local providers who accept their insurance, or as a result of immigration status, it has been estimated that thousands of Rhode Island children forgo dental care. Statewide health surveys showed that in 2020, 398 children were treated in emergency rooms for dental-related conditions. Of these, 79 required hospitalization, with an oral health condition as the primary reason.
At the helm of the Molar Express is James “Jimmy” Houle, the program’s truck driver. The Molar Express tries to cover “everything over the bridge,” he said, making stops at convenient community locales, such as schools and daycare facilities. He said between 12 to 20 patients per day are treated during summer visits, and many more during the school year.
Houle has seen a patient spectrum that, while mostly on the younger side, can run the international gamut, given Aquidneck Island’s nature as a destination for traveling workers and students at places like the Naval base. “We get a lot of Navy kids from other countries,” he said.
On this day, dental assistant Tara Arpin was in between appointments. In the adjacent room, a pair of dental hygienists stood over a boy in need of fillings, while his mother sat nearby.
Arpin said the dozen or more young patients they see during the summer does not compare to what they encounter during the academic year when they visit schools, with staff members often working nonstop providing cleanings, cavity fillings and sealants.
“We are constantly going,” she said. “We often see kids who need a mouthful of work. Sometimes this is the only dental care a child will receive.”
The program is free to those who are uninsured. If a patient has Medicaid or a private insurance plan, they will recoup the costs when possible.
“It’s a big help to those who usually pay on a sliding scale, especially if they need a lot of work,” she said.
Arpin was asked if children are apprehensive about climbing aboard an office on wheels.
“Sometimes a patient will be absolutely petrified,” she said. “In some cases, we try and pair them up with someone they trust, like a friend or [someone] they are comfortable with. We do our best to ease them into the chair.”
There is also sometimes a language barrier. The mother visiting with her son on this particular day spoke limited English, but a dental assistant answered questions and eased her concerns. When necessary, staff will also use digital translation apps.
Arpin said children should visit a dentist “as soon as they have teeth.” She has treated infants as young as 16 months. And while a host of healthcare programs exist to bridge the gap between those up-to-date with dental work and those who have put it off, these initiatives could always be expanded, she said.
“We could always use more [staff and funding],” she said, adding that the Molar Express welcomed over 100 students from Pell Elementary School last year.
“We could stay just at Pell Elementary for half of the school year,” she said.
The mobile unit is equipped with most of what one would see in a brick-and-mortar dentist’s office. However, it does not provide oral surgery or sedation.
“Our goal is preventative,” Arpin said. “We always try and do as much as we can before we get to the point where we need to refer them to someone else.”