Fort Worth, Texas,
11:13 AM

Save a Smile Program Provides 100k Oral Screenings to Children

Cook Children’s Medical Center has something to smile about these days.

Despite the toll of a lengthy pandemic, the hospital system hit two milestones since the inception of its Save a Smile program—it reached a 100,000-oral-screenings mark at the end of the 2020-21 school year in August, as well as tallied more than $10 million in value dentistry completed by private practice dentists who volunteered their services.

“It’s huge! I’m so proud we hit these milestones in such a difficult year,” says Tonya Fuqua, DDS, director of Child Oral Health at Cook Children’s. “And then to know that we were the only ones who went the extra mile to make things really happen (in oral screenings) and we didn’t give up.”

Instead of shutting down during the pandemic, the team suited up in personal protective equipment (PPE), created new safety protocol and procedures with the help of Cook Children’s infectious disease specialists, and took every precaution to safely enter schools, conduct screenings and treat children in need of oral health care.

“We were going to be at dental screenings where kids’ mouths would be open, so all of a sudden, it was like, ‘We have to rethink how we do this and do it safely,’” Dr. Fuqua says.

Other similar programs within the state paused operations during the pandemic, Dr. Fuqua says, but Save a Smile was boosted by “the generosity and quick thinking of a lot of people within our system,” including Cook Children’s leadership, infectious disease team, Children’s Oral Health Coalition, The Center for Children’s Health and legal department. The program also received funding for two new vans, which allowed the Save a Smile community health workers to offer free and safe transport for patients (and their accompanying parents) to dentists’ offices when needed for treatment.

“It took all of us together to make this happen…knowing we were going to do this effectively and safely for all—not just for our team, but for the kids and families and the schools’ staff, as well,” Dr. Fuqua says.

And our volunteer dentists didn’t say no either, she says. About 100 area dentists participate in Save a Smile, including Dr. Fuqua, who is in private practice while overseeing the program on a part-time basis.

“The dentists could have said, ‘It’s too scary out there right now…we’re not going into schools. Or my practice was impacted, and I’m not going to do free dentistry.’ But they didn’t do that. They didn’t tell us no,” Dr. Fuqua says. “I’ve always thought, ‘Wow. These dentists already do so much’—but to do it through a pandemic? It just makes me that much more proud to know they really feel there’s a need and that our program is worthy. That the kids are deserving of the treatment.”

The school-based, grassroots program has been part of the Promise that’s guided Cook Children’s Medical Center’s efforts to connect children in our communities with the care they need, says Chris Pedigo, senior vice president for System Planning, Health Analytics and The Center for Children’s Health.

“We’re beyond proud of the work Save a Smile has done in addressing the oral health of our children, especially during challenging times,” Pedigo says. “It’s fulfilling our Promise to the families we serve, and it’s what sets Cook Children’s apart.”

Save a Smile, which began in 2003, targets 21 elementary schools that are Title I schools (where at least 80% of the student body receive free and reduced-cost lunches) in Tarrant County. The schools are in Fort Worth, HEB and Keller school districts, respectively. Throughout the school year, the program’s team screens students to determine the level of urgency for immediate and potential oral health needs.

The program’s community health workers also help families determine if they are eligible for oral health care under Medicaid or CHIP coverage and get them connected to an appropriate provider. Students’ families who may not be eligible for those programs—but still can’t afford the cost of oral health care—are helped through Save a Smile.

The coordinated care and social service component of the program is the key element, Dr. Fuqua says, to ensuring children receive the dental care they most desperately need to be happy, healthy and productive in school.