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ATSU-ASDOH and Maricopa County partner to provide dental care for youth in juvenile detention facilities

Until early last year, if a child in Arizona’s juvenile detention facilities had tooth pain, dental care options were limited. Thanks to A.T. Still University’s Arizona School of Dentistry & Oral Health (ATSU-ASDOH), these youths now receive preventive care, dental education, and prompt treatment for dental emergencies.

In partnership with Maricopa County, ATSU-ASDOH provides services for youth in detention centers at two sites. Basic care, including exams, cleanings, and fluoride varnish applications, is provided at county facilities. Youth with acute needs, such as pain and infection, are transported to ATSU-ASDOH’s Advanced Care Clinic on the School’s Mesa campus. To date, approximately 200 youth have received care through the program.

“Prior to this program, their only option was to complain of dental pain, and go to a local hospital to get a tooth pulled,” says Scott Howell, DMD, MPH, FSCD, ’14, assistant professor at ATSU-ASDOH. “What we’re trying to do is give them more options than just an extraction.”

Dental services are provided on-site by ATSU-ASDOH students under the guidance of dental hygienists on the ATSU faculty. Dental hygiene students from Northern Arizona University also participated in the program, seeing patients for one month last year. Using teledentistry technology, Dr. Howell works with students to review records, photos, and X-rays collected in the field to develop treatment plans for the young patients.

“What our students do is the backbone of the program,” says Dr. Howell. “Without them going out, we wouldn’t have this data to review to help the kids with the next step of their care.”

The program was recently recognized by the National Association of Counties (NACo) with a NACo Achievement Award. NACo awards recognize innovative county government programs across the country.

For patients, the benefits of the partnership extend beyond oral health.

“The youth really enjoy seeing the dental students,” says Dr. Howell. “The students are at a different level than anyone else the kids see on a daily basis. It’s great for them to interact in a positive way with adults outside of the detention system.”

It turns out, the feeling is mutual.

“When you find out you are doing a rotation in a juvenile detention center, you have no idea what to expect,” says third-year student, Shima Ghattan. “My experience was eye-opening, humbling, and overall very positive. The youth we worked with were incredibly cooperative and open to sharing their stories with us. We were surprised by how inquisitive they were about learning proper oral hygiene. At the end of the cleanings, many of the boys we worked with wouldn’t stop smiling and thanking us. Some even asked permission to hug us. Personally, I’m thankful to have had an opportunity to experience this rotation. It has opened my eyes to a new facet of dentistry I would not otherwise have considered. ”

ATSU-ASDOH students who have participated in the program share Ghattan’s enthusiasm.

“The students love going out there,” says Dr. Howell. “They have time and time again told me how much they enjoy the experience.”

Proper dental care may even minimize the negative behaviors that lead youth to detention facilities.

“If we can help them get out of pain and be comfortable now, my hope is that the lack of pain leads to better behavior, which leads to a shorter sentence and a quicker turnaround in the system, so they can get their lives back,” says Dr. Howell.


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