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Old made new: Philanthropy gives life to creative approaches at the pediatric dentistry clinic

Gregory W. Olson, DDS, MSc
Gregory W. Olson, DDS, MSc meeting with patients
Innovations at the Pediatric Dentistry Clinic are set to help children continue receiving the care they need in a welcoming environment.

When families struggled to afford dental care for their children, the Pediatric Dentistry Clinic at UTHealth Houston School of Dentistry previously offered its services at no cost. A new approach, however, is upending conventional wisdom about caring for those of lower socioeconomic status.

“What we’re seeing is that not only do children still receive the care they need when their caregivers pay as they are able for treatment, but it helps give more dignity to the families involved,” says Gregory W. Olson, DDS, MSc, Professor and Chair of the Department of Pediatric Dentistry at UTHealth Houston School of Dentistry.

When children from uninsured, low-income families cannot afford the entire treatment plan, clinic staff present each family with a proposed treatment plan and partnership: The family will contribute toward the cost of the care based on their ability to pay—even the smallest amount—and the clinic will provide the treatment, with remaining expenses covered in part by gifts from generous donors.

Olson says that by offering families a sense of co-ownership in the care process, he has seen more consistent appointment-keeping and follow-through with aftercare instructions, which should lead to more sustainable oral health improvement for the children the clinic treats.

“We’ve found it creates a better experience overall because everyone can give a little bit,” Olson says.

Philanthropy has also helped enhance care for some of the clinic’s tiniest patients through new technology. Treating infants with cleft lip and palate previously required manually casting a mold of the roof of an infant’s mouth—a difficult procedure for doctors and newborns alike. The clinic is transforming this process by digitizing it. Thanks to donated funds, a 3D printer was purchased and is able to readily print custom nasoalveolar molding devices. Combined with an intraoral scanner, a tiny camera that allows the clinician to scan the inside of the infant’s mouth, the process is becoming gentler and more efficient.

“Instead of requiring a family to bring their infant here for an impression, a dentist in their community might even be able to scan the mouth and send it to us digitally so we can print the mold for them,” Olson says. “It will not only help streamline the process but also provide a key component of care for more children.”

 Since moving to its new location at the School of Dentistry in February 2023, the Pediatric Dentistry Clinic has been well outfitted with the latest technologies—including 12 dental operatories, a self-contained laboratory space, and state-of-the-art equipment. But caring for the dental needs of children requires more than technology.

The pediatric dentistry team plans to enhance the clinic to make the overall experience more pleasant for children by using funding from endowments established by generous donors including the Thomas W. Wild Pediatric Dentistry Foundation; Allen F. Gaw, DDS; Catherine M. Flaitz, DDS; Donna R. Offutt and David D. Offutt, DDS; and Rhett G. Campbell and Susan V. Seybold, DDS.

“It’s critical for us to create positive experiences for the children in our care,” says Olson. “Many of them will likely be apprehensive when they arrive, and having a warm, welcoming environment helps a great deal.”

Philanthropy keeps the clinic functioning at a high level in other ways as well, such as by helping purchase surgical instruments and radiography sensors. It has also enabled Olson to help pediatric residents conduct research that can lead to improved treatment methods and new technologies. He has used distributions from endowed funds to acquire artificial intelligence-assisted search tools to assist the residents as they look for scientific literature to aid their discoveries. This saves them time they can use for other educational, research, or clinical pursuits.

“I have definitely seen a connection between philanthropy and our work here,” Olson says. “These gifts make a difference every day.”

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