In Cochise County, up to 30 percent of kindergarteners aren’t receiving regular dental care. Additionally, the county has been identified as a dental health professional shortage area, with the number of dentists 32 percent under the national average.

One’s oral health correlates with overall health, and inadequate dental care can cause a variety of both physical and emotional distresses.

A partnership between Ronald McDonald House Charities of Southern Arizona and Chiricahua Community Health Centers is looking to address the gap in children’s oral care here in rural Cochise County.

Chiricahua will be unveiling the newest addition to their fleet of mobile care units this month.

The 45-foot custom mobile dental van is one of the over 50 Care Mobile units owned by Ronald McDonald House Charities throughout 10 countries and regions. Chiricahua’s is the first in Arizona.

Kate Jensen, RMHC President and CEO, said that Care Mobile is a core program of Ronald McDonald House Charities and that a need for dentistry services was identified in Cochise County.

Chiricahua proved to be a smart partnership from the beginning.

“The way Chiricahua operates, they are very efficient and they could operate the program positively; they just didn’t have the capital to purchase a van,” Jensen said.

“One of the cool things about these Care Mobiles is they are designed to meet the needs of the community and as this grows, it will be meeting the needs of 500 to 1000 kids in Cochise County that may not have access to other dental care.”

Once Chiricahua created a business plan, it was submitted to Ronald Mcdonald House Charities, who agreed to fund the $552,000 van.

“Chiricahua are remarkable people who are changing those communities and I was really impressed by them,” Jensen said. “My board and I are thrilled to have this opportunity to improve children’s health, an expansion of our programs.”

RMHC will continue to act as administrative oversight and will create a volunteer advisory council. Chiricahua will be responsible for operations.

Providing affordable health care in the county is a major mission of Chiricahua, which is the largest full service Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS) provider in Cochise County, and is also federally funded.

Public relations and media specialist Sarah Pacheco said about half of their patients use AHCCCS and they also offer a sliding fee scale so that no one is turned away from receiving care.

About 30 to 40 percent of the clients at the Ronald McDonald House in Tucson are actually Cochise County residents.

Chiricahua has a series of mobile care units that travel throughout the county, including the Molar Patroller, a smaller dental van that was used for about 10 years and needed major upgrading.

“It still visits Wilcox twice a week and it’s parked here providing integrated dental services to our early childhood center on certain days, but it is aging and it isn’t functioning very well anymore,” Pacheco said. “We’ve been looking to replace it, so that’s where we came from into this partnership.”

“They (RMHC) found that as we are a mobile health provider already, we were already operating, already had existing relationships at a lot of different locations where we bring our mobiles, and we have an established name, so I think that was a natural partnership for them to gravitate towards.”

The new mobile dentistry unit was created to meet the specific needs of Chiricahua, working with staff to decide on things like color, the type of equipment on board and how many dental chairs they wanted.

“This is like going to any other dentist office,” Pacheco said. “We can do full-service dentistry and will have nitrous on site.”

“We don’t do full oral surgery but anything that you need to be referred to an oral surgeon for, we would refer you.”

Thanks to a Legacy Foundation grant, they were able to purchase some specialized equipment.

One particular piece of equipment the whole staff of Chiricahua is excited about is the panoramic X-ray machine, something not even every traditional dentist office has.

“There’s parts of Cochise County where people were having to drive for two hours to get a pano completed,” Pacheco said. “Especially in your teen years, it’s really important that you can get that full scope of the mouth; in pediatric dentistry, pano is really important.”

Hygienist Terri Kibler is one of the staff who will likely be working on the mobile unit, and said it’s amazing to have the first unit of it’s kind in the state. The state of the art equipment is just one component she’s looking forward to.

“One of the neat things, especially as a hygienist, is that a lot of the things I deal with are prevention,” she said. “If we can get the kids to have no cavities from childhood up, we are going for it.”

“Hygienists are really into prevention, that’s our theme, so we are all excited.”

Kibler said being able to bring the unit to schools will help the school nurses get a second pair of eyes on children and that regular dental checkups can help identify other health problems in young people.

“The mouth is where everything starts, so we not only can tell when things aren’t right about people, we can refer them to their medical doctor if we see something strange in their mouth,” she said.

“There’s so many demographics and studies that show kids miss a lot of school because of dental problems. Their nutrition is affected because when we have kids that have a lot of dental problems, they won’t tell their parents the tooth hurts because they don’t want to get in trouble, they think they did something wrong.”

Lori Faccio, health center manager for dental, said youth responded well to the Molar Patroller and that the new unit should be a good experience for kids.

“With our old unit, I like to tell a story, when you have eighth graders running out to meet you at the fence yelling, ‘here comes the mobile patrollor,’ that’s a big deal,” she said. “In one event in this, we can probably see up to 15 kids, probably more, and for two different services — exams and x-rays, and their cleanings.”

She’s excited to be able to bring dental care services to schools to not only improve oral health in the youth of the community, but to support parents as well.

“The big thing too is when we come to the schools, the parents don’t have to miss work and the kids don’t have to miss school,” she said. “They step out for a 45-minute appointment on site and they’re taken care of.”

The dental Care Mobile will travel from its home in Douglas to Wilcox, and provide dental services at Chiricahua clinics in Douglas, Bisbee, Benson, Elfrida and Sierra Vista. They are still looking for additional locations.

There will be a grand opening of the bus in conjunction with the grand re-opening of the Willcox McDonald’s location after their completed remodel, on June 15 from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.

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