Community Clinics Provide Vital Dental Care for Hispanic Children

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Hispanic children in low-income families are more likely to experience tooth decay and dental disease, which can contribute to physical and mental illness into adulthood. To address the critical needs of this population, two community clinics operated by the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UT Health San Antonio) School of Dentistry provide accessible and affordable dental care.

“Dental cavities in children can have serious long-term effects on their overall health and quality of life,” says Micaela Gibbs, DDS, MHA, chief dental officer at UT Health San Antonio School of Dentistry. “The inability to eat can cause malnutrition and underdevelopment, and pain from dental disease impairs a child’s ability to sleep and learn. The stigma of poor oral health impacts self-esteem and socialization. All these collectively have long-term consequences that last into adulthood.”

The Ricardo Salinas Pediatric Dental Clinic and the Laredo Dental Clinic operate through partnerships with the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District and Laredo Health Department, respectively, and provide opportunities for pediatric dental residents and senior dental students to gain hands-on experience and work alongside the UT Health San Antonio faculty.

Offering a range of services to assist the local community, the clinics prioritize affordability by accepting Medicaid patients and providing dental services on an income-based sliding fee scale for uninsured patients. Practitioners emphasize preventative treatment to avoid emergency and high-cost dental care. Also, bilingual staff members assist in communication with Spanish-speaking patients and parents.

“[The clinics are] a haven for our patients who cannot afford dental care,” says Claudia Contreras, DDS, clinical assistant professor at UT Health San Antonio School of Dentistry. “The emphasis is on the preventative [care] and making sure that parents understand what is causing these cavities.”

Among Hispanic children, 57 percent experience some form of tooth decay compared to 40 percent of non-Hispanic White children, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

“Tooth decay is the most common chronic childhood disease in the U.S.,” says Maria Jose Cervantes Mendez, DDS, MS, the postdoctoral program director in pediatric dentistry at UT Health San Antonio. “One in five children are likely to have tooth decay by the time they go to kindergarten in our community, which rises to half by the time they finish elementary school.”

This issue is exacerbated for low-income families who may not be able to afford nutritious food options and lack insurance to pay for expensive dental treatment. The clinics are designed to help put families at ease by offering culturally competent communication and affordable services.

“A dental issue should be the last thing on our children’s mind while at school, and we can help ensure that,” says Cervantes Mendez.

This article was published in our May 2023 issue.