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Dental Equality – A Quarantine Interview with South Bay Children’s Health Center

I’m excited to share with you my conversation with Lisa Daggett, director of development, and dental director, Megha Sata DDS, from the South Bay Children’s Health Center. They are working extra hard during the pandemic to make sure all South Bay kids get the dental care they need. Enjoy our conversation. Here’s a Transcript of our interview:

Lisa Daggett: I think that a healthcare organization that doesn’t include dental is missing a really, really vital component. So many connections between a child’s oral health and their overall health and wellness. And a child in pain can’t study. They can’t sleep, they can’t eat, and they have very poor success outcomes. And the interesting thing about dental decay that I didn’t know until I started working in the fundraising area in oral health, is that dental decay is almost 100% preventable with the right combination of services, services that a child that lives on moderate or high income, has private insurance, is not as much of an issue. But a child that lives in poverty, lives in low income, most of those kids are on Denti-Cal, which is Medi-Cal’s dental program, dental insurance program. And unfortunately, the number of dentists that are willing to accept Denti-Cal really run few and far between.

Dr. Sata: USC did a study of 1500 kids in the LA public schools. And whether it’s because of pain or missed school days because of toothaches, they found a statistically significant difference in GPA averages of kids who had toothaches versus not. A lot of times, we anecdotally know that there must be a correlation, but to see that oral health actually affects performance in schools. And given that most of those students are already at a disadvantage, and oral health isn’t just about a kid’s self esteem and how they look, but also how they’re performing and it can affect self esteem in other ways.

Brenna: I remember seeing, at one point, having kids of my own, that there was some sort of a form we had to fill out certifying that they had been to a dentist. Is that enforced? Is that part of the law?

Dr. Sata: Yeah. So there is a kindergarten oral health assessment requirement, but it’s a requirement that is waived if the child can not find a dental provider. Now, more than half of California kids are on Medi-Cal, and the last statistic that I read was something like 16 percent of dentists in California accept Medi-Cal. And so, there’s a big gap in availability of services.

Brenna: Do the schools know about you, that you exist, to refer to you?

So we do free school screenings where we go in and we just do a quick visual exam to assess urgent needs and decay, and needs for things like sealants that really standard of care when it comes to prevention. We have now, in the last, I would say, five years, really done a lot of outreach to different school districts. We have been at many, many health fairs that expand beyond Lawndale or Redondo. We’ve really tried to focus in on Early Head Start programs. So we cold called Early Head Start programs in an effort to try to get in and provide early intervention and prevention. And then, in addition, we do education for not only the kids, but the parents.

So people do know about us. I don’t think enough people know about us, and they’ll come in, and when they realize that we’re a nonprofit, it’s like this sigh of relief. Because even if they have Medi-Cal, they don’t have to worry if things aren’t covered and we will work with them, and we don’t turn anybody away.

Thanks to Lisa and our grants and the grantors, and all of the fundraising activities that she helps organize, we are able to really not sacrifice the way that we want to practice, and practice in a way that really ensures that we’re doing our best to provide really high quality care and meet the needs of the individuals that we’re serving. Because it really comes down to an individual level of care. Every child is so different and taking the time to get to know each kid really makes a huge difference.

Brenna: Can you share a particular success story?

Dr. Sata: We really work hard at trying to do what we can to help families with special needs kids. And so, one of the stories that comes to mind is this child that came in and his mom had taken him to probably three or four different offices before coming to ours. And she was just at her wit’s end. And he had autism. He was about, I think he was nine years old. And the thing with special needs kids is, a lot of times, dentists will see them and just assume that, based on one data point, one five minute appointment, that they wouldn’t be able to treat a child. And what we do is we try to provide them desensitization in visits.

So the first time he came in, he wouldn’t come to the back. He wouldn’t come into the operatory. So we had scheduled him right before lunch so that there weren’t many patients in the office. And during lunch, I just sat with him and played in the waiting room. And I had mom take pictures of the whole staff, the office and myself.

And then the second time he came in, he recognized me, because mom had showed him pictures while he was brushing so that he would correlate, right, oral health with our office. And so the second time, we got him to walk to the back and look in the room and mom was surprised. And then the third time, we got him in the chair. And then the fourth time, we were actually able to clean his teeth.

And building up to this, there was a lot of anxiety, a lot of relief along the way, and even for myself. Okay? So by the fourth visit, when I was actually able to get his mouth open and I started scaling, which is the scraping that everybody hates when they go to the dentist, he had a lot of build-up. And I said, “I’m just going to start with a couple of the front teeth.”

So I started and I will tell you, it was like pin drop silence in the room, because the mom could not believe what was happening. The assistant, she’s well-trained. She didn’t want to, nobody wanted to mess with the mojo. So I’m cleaning his teeth and the assistant moves something and an instrument came crashing down. And it was like, boom. Everybody’s heart just jumped. And I just very carefully removed my instruments from his mouth.

And I was expecting some kind of reaction, negative reaction, you know? And instead, he goes, “Oh, no, Luigi.” Because he loved Mario Brothers, and I guess that’s something from Mario Brothers, that there’s a thing where they go, “Oh, no, Luigi.” And we just started laughing hysterically, all of us. And he started laughing. And I will tell you, the mom was in tears, because she had so much pent up anxiety and she felt so much relief in this moment that she was in a safe place that was willing to try.

Brenna: That’s fantastic. And it sounds like, similar to the mental health side of things and the stories that I was hearing about the fact that you already have to be creative in terms of providing these services, especially to a special needs child because of the pandemic now and all the changes in the world. Have you had to make new creative adjustments and will any of those continue, do you think? In any way, was this a silver lining? I mean, obviously, the pandemic and everything have been terrible, but there’s, I think, some changes and maybe some new ways of thinking that you guys are already set up to think that way. But tell me a little bit about how that’s affected things for you.

Dr. Sata: So dentistry already, I think, is high on infection control and sterilization and cleanliness and cross contamination. Those are things that we’ve already discussed in length. What I’m finding, surprisingly, is that, I don’t know if it’s because children are used to seeing masks everywhere now. They haven’t been as scared. Now, unfortunately for the patients, it’s not as comfortable. We’ve had to close down the waiting room. Their car is now our waiting room. We call them in when we’re ready for them.

We just want to make sure everybody’s safe and decrease any opportunity for any kind of cross contamination. And our clinic actually was one of the first in the area to do tele dentistry. We actually started doing it a few years ago with schools, so that my hygienist would go into a program and see parents and kids onsite at these Early Head Start programs. And utilizing pictures, I was able to do the diagnosing from the clinic. We’re just finding that it’s a very cost effective way to get services out, and it increases the likelihood that kids will get access.

Brenna: Is there something that you wish that everyone in the South Bay understood about dentistry, about your program? And also, how can people support? If they’re inspired and they want to help, what can they do to help your program?

Dr. Sata: I think, especially considering current events, is the idea of equity, right? And people don’t think about oral health equity, but obviously, that’s something I’m passionate about. And people don’t realize how much oral health affects overall health. And whatever your beliefs are, I think we all agree that kids deserve that, that children deserve health equity. We think of this area as very affluent, but there are kids that are in need. I just feel that as a community, we are going to come out ahead by supporting these children. I hope more people in the community learn about us and what we’re doing. I hope that we can raise awareness on the disparities in oral health and mental health, and really, as a community, come together and try to support these children.

You can help by donating to the South Bay Children’s Health Center today!

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