Teeth on Wheels: a driving force

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Teeth on Wheels
The Zeid brothers started their mobile clinic with the goal of making dental visits for children as positive as possible. Photography: Eamon Gallagher

Two brothers started Teeth on Wheels to deliver oral healthcare to school kids. A decade later, they’ve treated 80,000 children. By Kerryn Ramsey

When oral health therapist brothers, Joseph and Rami Zeid, started a mobile dental clinic in 2015, they wanted to make a difference to children’s attitude to visiting the dentist. Their plan was to provide dentistry to school children in and around Melbourne by scheduling school visits every six months. In many cases, this would be a child’s first experience with a dentist and it was imperative that it was a positive one.

“Our parents are migrants from Lebanon who had some bad dental experiences when they were growing up,” says Joseph. “When mum was preparing me for a dental appointment, she would tell me not to be scared and I had to be brave. I immediately knew something bad was going to happen at the dentist.”

Rami had a similar experience. “Mum would sit in the corner during my dental appointments. If I needed a filling, she’d jump out of the corner, grab my hand and tell me I was going to be okay. My tension and fear would go through the roof.”

The Zeid brothers strongly suspected that many kids were picking up dental anxiety from their parents. They also knew most parents would not attend a school dental visit so there would be less anxiety to manage. 

Getting mobile

The first thing the brothers needed to do was design and build a mobile dental clinic. Initially, they purchased a decommissioned mobile dental clinic from a company working at nursing homes. They did a complete renovation of the interior and while it was successful, it had one big drawback. It was manual so could only be used by dental staff who knew how to drive a manual. Despite this, Teeth on Wheels was now a reality. They then re-purposed a secondhand campervan but ongoing engine problems saw it spend more time off the road than on. The only solution was to go brand new.

“We spoke with Isuzu and purchased a new Isuzu truck,” says Joseph. “They introduced us to a company that builds van bodies. We commissioned our own electrician, plumber, dental suppliers and vinyl guys. We also designed the interior and layout as we need to work efficiently while giving the kids an experience that is enjoyable.”

The purpose-built truck was an immediate success. They could now offer a wide range of dental procedures and the kids were having fun while seeing the dentist. 

“The first version of our mobile dental clinic was on the road in 2016,” says Rami. “The year after that, we built another two with some minor modifications. The year after that, we built another four. Today, we have nine mobile vans consisting of clinics with chairs and a dedicated OPG clinic. We also have a clinic that can go inside classrooms.”

Comprehensive dental

Teeth on Wheels has been an outstanding success. At present, they are working with around 200 schools, treating 20,000 children annually. When you add in childcare centres, that number increases to nearly 400 facilities. The mobile clinics offer a full-service dental experience.

Anyone who works with us has to be well-qualified and, more importantly, passionate about the job. Kids respond to a specific type of positive personality, and patience is a must. It’s important to win each child’s trust and that can take five minutes, multiple visits or 18 months.

Rami Zeid, co-owner, Teeth on Wheels

“We can provide everything for the kids but we choose not to do root canals,” says Joseph. “Endodontics requires a check-up two weeks later and we can’t guarantee we’ll be back at the school. These cases are referred to a local dentist. Our main goal is to reduce anxiety so we work closely with paediatric dentists who offer sleep dentistry or general anaesthetics for more phobic patients. Apart from that, our mobile clinics can provide everything from fillings and extractions to fissure seals and crowns.”

The Zeid brothers are very particular about the nurses and dentists they employ to work in their mobile clinics. They need all the appropriate ‘working with children’ documentation and a comprehensive skill set.

“We‘ve successfully treated about 80,000 children,” says Rami. “Anyone who works with us has to be well-qualified and, more importantly, passionate about the job. Kids respond to a specific type of positive personality, and patience is a must. It’s important to win each child’s trust and that can take five minutes, multiple visits or 18 months.”

Teeth On O’Hea

In 2018, Teeth on Wheels had been growing at a rate of 400 per cent each year. Parents were impressed with how the service operated, especially with kids who had previous dental anxiety. Many parents were calling to see if they could be treated as well.

“We decided to add a bricks-and-mortar practice as an adjunct to our mobile service,” says Joseph. “Not only could we refer our patients back to our practice, but it opened the opportunity for families to attend appointments.”

The Zeid brothers purchased a practice in the suburb of Coburg from an 89-year-old dentist. The business was so run-down, it wasn’t even sold as a dental clinic but as a vacant property. 

“We negotiated a deal with him to leave all the dental equipment,” says Rami. “He was a lovely guy but very old school. His client base was tiny and many of his patients had suffered trauma at the practice. It took us three years to rebuild confidence in our Teeth On O’Hea practice among local people.”

Another surprise was that referrals from Teeth on Wheels wasn’t as successful as expected. Every suburb has multiple dental practices and it’s easier for families to visit someone local.

“The vast majority of our business is through our mobile clinic but Teeth On O’Hea is doing well today,” says Joseph. “We‘ve updated all the technology and the client base is expanding.”

Positive experiences

Joseph and Rami Zeid set up Teeth on Wheels with a clear vision. They wanted to reduce fear and anxiety, minimise pain and encourage lifelong oral health care for all their patients. They achieve this by making each child’s visit a stress-free, fun experience, providing a range of educational videos and games for the kids while they wait their turn. 

“We want to destroy the negative perception of people hating to see the dentist,” says Joseph. “A visit to the dentist should be something that’s completely normal. We’re also in a unique position that by treating children, we have the opportunity to prevent disease and potential future issues. We teach kids effective oral healthcare and that will reduce waiting lists in the future. It’s a win for governments, the public and taxpayers.”

In 2018, the Victorian Government announced plans to fund mobile dental services to schools. They consulted with the Zeid brothers to investigate their working model under the premise of a public-private partnership. 

“Currently, Dental Health Services Victoria is attempting to set up a fully government-run system,” says Joseph. “We‘re hoping for further consultation and an opportunity to be involved as this is a huge, complex task.”

For now, the Zeid brothers continue to roll out their service across Victoria while demystifying dentistry to a generation of school kids. 

“Our future plans are to continue doing what we are doing,” says Rami. “We want to constantly improve and continue to grow. Teeth on Wheels is all about positively impacting our patients, our staff, and the community. The most important thing is that whoever we are currently treating is getting the best care possible. Growing the business is a goal but improving people’s health is our priority.” 

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