A Mission to Save Smiles

June 3, 2014
by Maya Meinert and Beth Newcomb
Dr. Vanessa Beer examines a child's teeth during a community visit. Photo by Gus Ruelas.

$3 Million Gift Expands Community Outreach in Dental, Social Care

In an effort to foster multidisciplinary community outreach, the Hutto-Patterson Charitable Foundation will give $3 million to establish the Hutto-Patterson Institute for Community Health at the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC and the USC School of Social Work.

To expand the efforts of both schools to improve overall well-being in the Los Angeles area, the Hutto-Patterson Foundation gift will be used to purchase a custom-made eight-chair mobile clinic trailer – the Ostrow School’s largest – as well as provide for endowed faculty funds and student scholarships focusing on those who work in the schools’ outreach programs. This significant funding would allow USC to reach its goal of providing services to more than 45,000 underserved children in the Children’s Health and Maintenance Program (CHAMP).

For Catherine Hutto Gordon, president of the Hutto-Patterson Foundation, making this gift was a perfect fit. The foundation, which was established with an inheritance from her dentist grandfather, has a history of giving to dental education. And Gordon, MSW ’97, knows first-hand the value of collaboration between social workers and health care professionals.

“When I first started social work school at USC in 1993, I had a professor who held positions in both the dental school and social work school, and I was fascinated by that because of my dental connection [through the foundation],” said Hutto Gordon, who went on to work as a social worker helping families with special needs family members navigate large hospital systems to ensure they received effective care. “I could see how important it is for dental students to have social work training and awareness – the more interchange of information, the better off all the clients end up being. Now I get a chance to influence this myself. My dental connection gave me the idea to establish a new, innovative interdisciplinary collaboration between the Ostrow School and School of Social Work.”

Children and families in need


The Ostrow School founded its Community Oral Health Programs in the 1960s, decades before the release of the U.S. surgeon general’s 2000 landmark report about disparate access to dental health care among different populations. With USC mobile and stationary dental clinics located throughout underserved communities, such as South Los Angeles and downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row, the Ostrow School is able to provide much-needed oral health services to vulnerable groups.

Seeing a need to expand services, the Ostrow School and School of Social Work teamed up in 2012 to help underprivileged children and families find trusted “dental homes” by providing oral health care and assistance in overcoming barriers to getting routine dental care. That year, a five-year, $18.3-million grant from First 5 LA had enabled the schools to start CHAMP, which travels to Head Start and Women, Infants, Children (WIC) centers throughout Central Los Angeles, where Ostrow School clinicians screen children through the age of 5 for dental problems, administer preventive fluoride treatments and provide families with oral health education. To help families locate those dental homes where children can receive regular dental care, the CHAMP team provides referrals to the Pediatric Dental Clinic at the Ostrow School and multiple community dental clinics that have become partners in this project, as well as follow-up help to ensure families actually take advantage of these benefits.

Professor Roseann Mulligan, CHAMP principal investigator, associate dean of Community Health Programs and Hospital Affairs, and chair of the Division of Dental Public Health & Pediatric Dentistry at the Ostrow School, said the scope of the oral health need in Los Angeles children is profound. Besides the impact on health and well-being in general, Ostrow research has shown that dental pain and illness in kids can lead to poor academic performance and is a leading cause of school absences.

“Seventy percent of underprivileged children in Los Angeles have active caries [the disease that causes dental decay] or are at risk for it,” Mulligan said. “There’s a lot of disease that can be prevented by instilling in children good oral health habits and finding them dental homes.”

Assistant Professor of Clinical Dentistry Vanessa Beer, one of the examiners who travels to CHAMP sites throughout Los Angeles to provide dental screenings, said only about 60 percent of the children she’s seen have visited a dentist; of those, many were unable to receive adequate care due to extensive needs or an inability to cooperate with treatment at a very young age. The program provides important introductions or reintroductions to dentistry for kids and families that pave the way for good oral health attitudes and practices in the future, she explained.

“When CHAMP shows a child they have nothing to be afraid of, and they can actually have fun taking good care of their teeth, this helps the child on their way to becoming an adult without dental trauma and to feeling confident about their ability to grow up healthy,” Beer said.

Mulligan said the social work facets of CHAMP are valuable in facilitating more care for families beyond the initial dental screening.

“It’s not just a matter of saying to a patient, ‘You need this,’” she said. “School of Social Work team members can try to neutralize barriers and help people get the services they need.”

A deep understanding of the challenges


In the CHAMP program, School of Social Work Master of Social Work students follow up with families, helping them understand and access dental care benefits, as well as make it easier for parents to access other resources for basic needs, ranging from food and clothing to much more serious situations such as domestic violence victim assistance.

Tory Cox, clinical assistant professor and assistant director of field education at the School of Social Work who has worked with the Ostrow School in placing interns in the CHAMP program, noted that the response from the community to having social services offered alongside dental services has been overwhelmingly positive, though the demand is getting to be almost too much for student interns to handle. The Hutto-Patterson Foundation gift will allow for more opportunities to provide care on both fronts, while also giving dental and social work students important hands-on learning.

“There are so many things that prevent people from getting the proper care that they need to get healthy,” Cox said. “Through dental care, we’re able to provide social services, and by providing those services, dental students begin to recognize the milieu families are living in.”

For MSW student Dulce Acosta, hearing about these patients’ family situations hits home. Acosta, who has also worked as a staff member at the Ostrow School for 15 years, was the first in her family to earn a high school diploma, let alone attend college and graduate school. She grew up in a low-income family in East Los Angeles without medical or dental insurance.

“I grew up getting teeth cleanings for $20 from a guy who worked out of a garage,” she said.

These experiences have helped Acosta identify with her clients and give back to the community she came from, a place where dental care often takes a back seat to paying rent. Understanding that people might not know they have the ability to apply for certain resources or that they think receiving oral health care will mean the government will receive their address – a significant concern for those who are undocumented – allows Acosta to share that cultural competency with her dental school and CHAMP colleagues.

She hopes the Hutto-Patterson Foundation gift will help USC reach many more families in need.

“We screen them and then attempt to provide them a dental home. But 30 percent of the phone numbers are disconnected by the time we call,” she said. “If we are able to provide preventive services at the first encounter, we won’t miss getting them started down a healthier road to a lifetime of good oral health. We would change so many children’s and families’ lives.”

A powerful partnership


Lisa Pedersen, an assistant professor at the Ostrow School and field internship instructor for the School of Social Work, is a licensed clinical social worker who oversees the MSW interns working with dental students, faculty and staff in the community outreach programs. She is relishing her crossover role as a social worker in medical education and has been impressed with the dentists and dentists-to-be at the Ostrow School.

“The dentists I’m meeting in community oral health are social workers in disguise,” she said. “They're on the front line, sitting on small stools in preschools with kids on their laps.  They seem to really want to serve children who may not have had opportunities for a healthy smile.  To have a USC-trained dentist working in the community is impressive, not only for the kids, but for future generations to come."

As a CHAMP dentist, Beer also appreciates the opportunity she has to work with and experience the perspective of the other facets of the program, including the social work and benefits enrollment components.

“We – the dentists, social workers and benefits enrollment specialists – interact, on average, on a weekly basis, and I feel very lucky to be able to do so,” Beer said. “As a dentist, I do try to learn from the social workers and others as situations arise in which we need each other's cooperation, but there is much more to learn, as new questions and challenges keep coming up! Our people are always learning from each other.”

The Hutto-Patterson Foundation’s gift is part of USC’s current fundraising initiative — the Campaign for the University of Southern California, which seeks to raise $6 billion or more in private support from individual donors, foundations and corporations.

At the time of its launch, the campaign had the largest fundraising goal ever announced in higher education. In three years, the campaign has already raised more than $3 billion.