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Health center offers tele-dentistry for young children at Ulu Wini

Updated: 
October 13, 2017 - 12:05am

KAILUA-KONA — As a working mom, Cheyenne Alvarez said, it can be hard to find time to make dentist appointments, particularly on days when she’s working from 4 or 5 p.m. to 3 the next morning.

So when she heard a team from the West Hawaii Community Health Center was coming to Ulu Wini for dental outreach, she jumped at the chance to get her four kids checked out.

“I thought it was awesome,” she said Thursday morning. “Because I work a lot and I hardly have time to make dentist appointments, and it just so happens that today’s my day off and it just worked out perfectly.”

The Health Center is the only one in Hawaii currently involved in the tele-dentistry pilot project, which is now in its second year and targeted at preschool children.

The program sends a hygienist and assistant out into the community with portable dental equipment, which allows them to provide an oral exam that includes taking pictures and X-rays as well as discussing oral health and prevention with kids and their parents.

A dentist can later review each of the children’s records and determine whether he or she needs to come into a clinic for treatment.

The program allows the Health Center to reach children and families who otherwise might not be able to access care and treatment options. In this case, they visited the affordable rental and transitional housing complex in Kailua-Kona.

“So really what it’s doing is enabling us to bring services out to where the people are, out into the community,” said Donna Altshul, dental program manager for the West Hawaii Community Health Center.

Alvarez said she already regularly checks the teeth of her four kids, but the outreach program is a great opportunity for a professional to take a look and identify any issues that might need to be addressed.

“You know, sometimes there’s things you can’t see, that only the dentist can see,” she said. “Because I’m not a dentist. It might look all good on the outside, but it might not be as good as it looks.”

The program ran from Wednesday through Thursday, with the team seeing a total of 23 kids over the two days.

And it’s not just a one-and-done deal. Health professionals, Altshul said, come out to the communities they serve and work to build a presence there.

“They’re there. They see the kids every day,” she said. “When they come in, they become part of the program so that the kids get familar with the team.”

And not only are the kids getting familiar with the team, but so are the parents, who can ask questions and empower themselves to promote healthy habits within their families.

Toni Symons, program director for social services at Ulu Wini, said the program is important for young residents at the housing complex, particularly for those whose parents might not have transportation to dental clinics.

And because residents trust the programs that come to the community, Symons added, it makes it that much easier to build relationships between residents and health care providers.

“So it’s easier to bring health care here because they know that they trust us,” Symons said. “So they know that what we bring here is going to be good for them.”

And even in its second year, Symons said they’re already seeing a long-term impact on the community.

“Our kids are willingly brushing their teeth; they’re aware of their teeth,” she said. “They understand having teeth cleaned.”

She added some kids who had received exams on Wednesday were even reassuring another child getting an exam on Thursday.

“And the more they understand the importance of taking care of their teeth, I mean that’s going to go far because that will translate into taking care of their health, all of that stuff,” she said.

Altshul also said the program has been great at encouraging healthier behaviors and applauded the work at Ulu Wini to do the same, crediting Symons for example with promoting healthy foods in the community.

“It really takes a whole community to change all those behaviors so that you can effect a change in the health of a child,” Altshul said.

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