Updated: No-cost dental screenings and dental sealants will be available to keiki attending Hawaii public schools on Oahu, Maui and Kauai.

More children in Hawaii have requested access to dental care, including sealants, during this past year than in any previous period in the four-year history of a collaborative statewide program that brings dentists to local schools.

State legislators, in response, are trying to determine what to do about it.

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This Hawaii Keiki – Hawaii Dental Service Dental Sealant Program was created in 2019 as a way to provide dental screening and sealants to second grade students in the state. The program sends licensed dentists and dental hygienists to participating public schools to conduct oral health assessments, teach health education and apply dental sealants free of cost. 

In its first year, it served six Hawaii schools and checked about 100 children for dental needs. In 2022-2023, the most recent data available, this same program served 50 schools and screened more than 800 kids. 

Holomua Elementary School students lineup and head back to their classrooms after recess.
Last year saw an uptick in children seeking dental screenings. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

To address this rising concern in the state, legislators are considering the creation of an oral health task force, under House Bill 617, sponsored by Rep. John Mizuno.

“Programs like this should not only be supported, but also expanded,” Mizuno said. 

The task force proposed under HB 617 would make recommendations on oral health in Hawaii.

Obstacles to dental care include lack of transportation, lack of insurance, language barriers, and a lack of knowledge about oral health and the importance of preventive care, said Deborah Mattheus, program director of the Hawaii Keiki – Hawaii Dental Service Dental Sealant Program.

“Children with poor oral health are three times more likely to miss school and are more likely to perform poorly in school,” she said. “Bringing dental care to the school breaks down existing barriers that prevent keiki from access to dental care.” 

Nationally, each year, kids miss more than 51 million hours from school due to dental problems, according to research by Mattheus and Maureen Shannon of the University of Hawaii Manoa School of Nursing and Dental Hygiene, in a 2015 piece called “Oral Health Outcomes for Children in Hawaii: Not Much to Smile About,” published in the Journal of Dental Problems and Solutions.

In the state, per the America’s Health Rankings report, in 2022 Hawaii ranks as the least healthy state in terms of poor oral health care due to the lack of the optimal amount of fluoride to a public water supply, which effectively prevents tooth decay in children and adults.

This chart shows the number of school children screened through the dental program. (Elyce Hastings/Civil Beat/2023)

The Hawaii Keiki – Hawaii Dental Service Dental Sealant Program serves students in the Hawaii Department of Education classified as enrolled in Title 1 schools — or schools that provide additional academic support and learning opportunities for a high number of socioeconomically disadvantaged children — located on the Islands of Oahu, Maui and Kauai.

At each dental sealant school visit, students are assessed for dental needs, provided sealants if needed and referred back to their dental home or connected to a dental home nearby if they currently do not have one.

In 2022, the Hawaii Dental Service Foundation provided a $133,447 grant for this program to continue and expand its work.

  • Stories By University Of Hawaii Students

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