During the past 20 years, oral health costs have increased 30 percent, placing access to dental care out of reach for vulnerable groups across the US. However, the Houston Health Department’s Project Saving Smiles (HHD/PSS) has been making progress in catering to Houston’s underserved communities. The public-private partnership targets at-risk second-graders in elementary schools in the Houston area that have 50 percent or more students enrolled in the Free and Reduced Lunch Program.
“Many of the patients we serve have not been to the dentist before or have not been in years,” says Dr. Justine Jimenez, HHD's senior public health dentist at PSS. “A child proud of their smile makes a difference in how they carry themselves, and it reflects in their schoolwork and in their daily activities. I am very proud to say that this project from Houston is setting an example for oral health prevention on a national scale.”
The Houston native has been the operations chief of PSS for the past three years. She detailed that this is the job she manifested; she knew that she would work for the organization one day.
“I am a Houstonian. My ultimate goal, after all the education and training that I completed, was always to come back home to serve the community that I came from and grew up in,” Jimenez says. “I continue to lead this project because I believe in the importance of setting a good example as a young, minority female doctor and leader in my field.”
Project Saving Smiles filled the need for better access to dental care in Harris County’s underserved neighborhoods and, since its inception in 2008, has served more than 74,000 second-grade students. The Houston Health Department noticed that children who suffer from oral health problems tend to be more distracted from their schoolwork and miss many days from school. According to the 2001 Dental Needs Assessment done in Harris County, 45.9 percent of second-graders had untreated tooth decay. And interestingly enough, the 2021 Surgeon General’s Report shows that more than 51 million school hours are lost each year in the US as a result of dental-related illness. HHD says the value of services provided through PSS has been estimated at $9.7 million since its launch.
The program has partnerships with many public and private organizations, including the Houston Health Foundation, the University of Texas School of Dentistry, Greater Houston Dental Society, and 13 school districts in the Houston region. Jimenez is currently on the board of directors for the Texas Oral Health Coalition and is the former chair of oral health for the Texas Public Health Association.
“My goal is to decrease the rate of dental cavities in our schoolchildren in Houston so that they can go to school and learn and maybe become the next Elon Musk,” Jimenez says. "Decreasing the incidence of dental caries is not impossible. That is the whole premise of oral health prevention, which this program is built upon."
Come September, the HHD will begin its assessment with schools that participate in the project year after year, as well as expand its mission to school districts that have 50 percent or more of students enrolled in the Free and Reduced Lunch Program.
“If for any reason I had any part in helping with that by preventing significant dental issues and pain, then that’s when I feel that I’ve made it ‘to the stars,’" says Jimenez. "And that, for me, makes me excited to be alive.”
To find out if your school is a participant in PSS, call the school liaison at (832) 393-4877. To learn more about the program, visit houstonhealth.org.