Photo caption: Ji Choi, dental director at International Community Health Services (ICHS), discusses the mobile dental clinic model with ICHS CEO Teresita Batayola. Photo credit: Christine Loredo.

Thanks to a recent $440,000 federal grant, International Community Health Services (ICHS) will begin offering badly needed dental care to students this fall at 10 Seattle public schools through its innovative new “mobile dental clinic.”

The mobile dental clinic is essentially a large van, fully equipped with two dental rooms, designed to travel from location to location to provide a high degree of accessibility to school-age patients who might not otherwise see a dentist for care.

Ji Choi, ICHS dental director, said dental pain is one major reason why students miss school.

“When you’re able to provide preventive care and take care of cavities and other dental problems, you see kids doing better in school and feeling much better about themselves,” he said. “It’s a win-win situation.”

Choi says students in Seattle Public Schools are sometimes unable to see a dentist because their parents have difficulty taking time off from work to take them. By bringing the dentist directly onsite to the school through the mobile dental van, students don’t have to sacrifice a huge chunk of their school day to get treated.

Choi anticipates that the new mobile dental clinic – dubbed “Mobile Dental Clinic: Healthy Smiles, Healthy Lives” – will serve about 12 to 16 patients a day during regular school hours. The schools to be served are Aki Kurose Middle School Academy, Cleveland High School, Franklin High School, Nathan Hale High School, Ingraham High School, Seattle World School/Nova High School, Rainier Beach High School/South Lake High School and Washington Middle School.

Although mobile dentistry is not a new concept – mobile clinics have served migrant workers and isolated communities for years – applying that concept to schools in an urban school setting is a more recent phenomenon, according to Choi.

Choi first suggested the idea of creating a mobile dental clinic for ICHS after witnessing the success of this kind of operation at Medical Teams International (MTI), a nonprofit health organization based in Portland, Ore., where he volunteered for five years. MTI provides free and low-cost dental care to thousands of low-income and homeless individuals in Oregon and Washington state, dispensing dental care out of 38-foot converted mobile homes.

“The measure of success for us will be making sure that this is sustainable for years to come, treating as many students as we can and improving the oral health of kids in that vital stage of life when they are moving into adulthood,” Choi said.

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