A smile is a powerful thing. Whether it’s a baby’s first gurgle, a school kid’s class portrait or a radiant bride’s beam of happiness, smiles create memories that stay with us for years to come.
It’s easy to take smiles for granted. Yet as a dentist, I know that every day children and adults lose a bit of their smiles to preventable diseases.
Unfortunately, very few people know that tooth decay is the most common chronic childhood disease in America, five times more common than asthma in children. Well over 2 million people visit hospital ERs each year with dental pain. Around 80% of these visits are for conditions like cavities that are preventable, by brushing twice a day, flossing, eating a balanced diet and visiting the dentist regularly. You can find information about how to look after your teeth, including foods that can damage your teeth at www.mouthhealthy.org.
As well as spreading the words about how to look after your oral health, many dentists who belong to the American Dental Association are also volunteering their time and services to help people living in underserved communities. The ADA estimates that dentists across the country provide over $2 billion in free or reduced cost care each year. In this year alone, more than 40,000 dentists and dental team members have provided basic yet vital dental services such as screenings, fillings and extractions, to more than 350,000 children at free community dental clinics called Give Kids a Smile. Since 2000, through Missions of Mercy events, dentists and dental team members have provided free dental services to underserved people of all ages.
The difference this can make to a person’s quality of life is huge. It’s not just about teeth and gums…it’s about helping people achieve healthier smiles and greater self-confidence. It’s a profoundly moving experience. Indeed it’s this kind of experience that makes community service as impactful for the dentists and other volunteers as it is for our patients. It’s about being part of a community, and taking actions to strengthen that community, and it’s a very powerful feeling.
I started my own career living and practicing dentistry on the Blackfeet Native American Reservation in Browning, Montana. My two-year commitment quickly turned into five wonderful years serving people who face genuine barriers to good dental health. That time widened and deepened my skills as a dentist, but it also showed me another culture and a different way of life. My two oldest boys even received Native American names from the Blackfeet tribe in a traditional ceremony. My family and I took away as much from those five years as we gave.
As dentists around the country will tell you, once you have a taste of community service, and can put a human face on the concept of need, it’s hard to ever let it go. Where I now live in Kalispell, Montana, health professionals come together each week at the Shepherd’s Hand Medical Clinic, where we provide free services to people who are generally 200% below the poverty line. Our patients can eat a free meal at our clinic, they are warmly welcomed, properly examined by experienced dentists, and receive the immediate dental treatment they need, often to address ongoing pain. Receiving this treatment can also prevent minor ailments turning into much more serious – and expensive – dental problems down the road. Across the country there are dentists and other volunteers engaged in this kind of community service, not only because it is deeply personally rewarding, but because it takes pressure off our broader health system.
Dentists are also finding new ways to combine community service with private practice. For example, more and more dentists are providing services on-site in nursing homes to meet the needs of our growing elderly population. Typically this involves treatment to alleviate chronic pain, or to ensure elderly people retain the most basic functions like eating solid food to avoid malnutrition and hospitalization. In some of the cases I’ve encountered, the main goal is simply to give patients the self–esteem to engage with other people. The self-esteem to smile, in other words.
Without fuss or fanfare, this type of work is going on all around the country as part of Action for Dental Health – the American Dental Association’s program to improve the nation’s dental health, by providing care now to those in need, by strengthening the dental safety net particularly through necessary reforms to Medicaid that deliver real results, and by educating communities about how to prevent dental health problems through good dental care.
So I’d like to fly the flag not just for my fellow dentists and all of the inspiring patients who put smiles on our faces, but to all the health practitioners across the country whose acts of service make our communities stronger, healthier and happier places. Amidst all the doom and gloom we see in the news these days, it’s something to really smile about.