Health & Medicine

Does your kid have a tooth ache? New clinics offer free checkups at SLO County schools

Watch SLO County’s pop-up clinic demonstrate a dental X-ray

A new mobile pop-up clinic is providing free dental checkups and cleanings at elementary schools in San Luis Obispo County, California. Here's a demonstration of the portable X-ray.
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A new mobile pop-up clinic is providing free dental checkups and cleanings at elementary schools in San Luis Obispo County, California. Here's a demonstration of the portable X-ray.

Free dental care is available to students of some South County elementary schools via a mobile, “pop-up” dental clinic — and the service will likely expand across the county soon.

If you struggle to get your child to the dentist because of money, time or access to care, this is good news for your family. As many as 70 percent of children in some SLO County communities have cavities by the time they reach third grade.

It’s also good for the budgets of school districts, which receive revenue based on attendance. Children often miss school to receive dental care and treatment, or because of untreated dental pain.

Since mid-February, a state-funded program brings a dental hygienist and care coordinator to three elementary schools to provide cleanings, X-rays, fluoride treatment and sealants, according to a news release from Public Health. They bring all the necessary equipment and set up in a room at each school.

They can send records electronically to Dr. Don Tran, who can then provide more complex treatment if needed.

Funding from a new tobacco tax is one of the revenue sources for the program.

So far, elementary schools in Grover Beach, Arroyo Grande and Nipomo have received visits from the pop-up dental clinic. The service is open to all students at those schools.

The program will soon expand to three more schools in the Lucia Mar school district and possibly to other areas in the county next year, according to a Tara Kennon, spokesperson for county Public Health.

A dental hygienist shows her equipment to students of Grover Beach Elementary School students during a demonstration of the new pop-up clinic. Courtesy SLO County Public Health

Filling a healthcare gap

For many children, a visit to the pop-up clinic was their first experience with professional dental care.

“We’re finally going to stop seeing kid after kid after kid with oral health problems that are not just left in the mouth, they actually go on to cause all manner of other problems,” said Public Health Officer Penny Borenstein during a demonstration of the clinic on Tuesday.

The situation is worse for families that cannot afford dental care, a specific problem for those who rely on Medi-Cal Dental because few dentists in San Luis Obispo County accept the state insurance, according to public health officials. In the 2015-16 school year, only 45 percent of children enrolled in Medi-Cal Dental saw a dentist.

Dr. Tran is one of the few dentists in the county who accepts Medi-Cal Dental benefits.

Children in families that cannot afford dental care missed twice as many days of school as those who can afford care, according to a 2009 UCLA research brief.

“It’s been a great thing for our school,” said Grover Beach Elementary School Principal James Snyder. “I see two main benefits. One is that the kids get the dental care they otherwise might not get. There’s also the fact that it can help with absenteeism. ... I see it as a win-win-win for the school district, the kids and parents.”

If left uncared for, cavities can lead to pain and missed school days, and could cause more complex health problems in the future. For example, tooth decay could reach the nerve or the tooth root, which would require a root canal or extraction.

Parents interested in enrolling can contact the Public Health dental program at or call (in English or Spanish) 805-781-5564.

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