A School-Based Public Health Model to Reduce Oral Health Disparities

Published in: Journal of Public Health Dentistry [Epub May 2017]. doi: 10.1111/jphd.12216

Posted on RAND.org on June 08, 2017

by Rebecca N. Dudovitz, Paul J. Chung

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Although dental decay is preventable, it remains the most common pediatric chronic disease. We describe a public health approach to implementing a scalable and sustainable school-based oral health program for low-income urban children.


The Los Angeles Trust for Children's Health, a nonprofit affiliated with the Los Angeles Unified School District, applied a public health model and developed a broad-based community-coalition to a) establish a District Oral Health Nurse position to coordinate oral health services, and b) implement a universal school-based oral health screening and fluoride varnishing program, with referral to a dental home. Key informant interviews and focus groups informed program development. Parent surveys assessed preventative oral health behaviors and access to oral health services. Results from screening exams, program costs and rates of reimbursement were recorded.


From 2012 to 2015, six elementary schools and three dental provider groups participated. Four hundred ninety-one parents received oral health education and 89 served as community oral health volunteers; 3,399 screenings and fluoride applications were performed on 2,776 children. Sixty-six percent of children had active dental disease, 27 percent had visible tooth decay, and 6 percent required emergent care. Of the 623 students who participated for two consecutive years, 56 percent had fewer or no visible caries at follow-up, while only 17 percent had additional disease. Annual program cost was $69.57 per child.


Using a broad based, oral health coalition, a school-based universal screening and fluoride varnishing program can improve the oral health of children with a high burden of untreated dental diseases.

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