Tending to the Forgotten Health Crisis
In 2012, I led a team of three dentists and two hygienists on a dental mission to Haiti, where we volunteered our time to provide free dental care in a country where there is just a single dentist for every 100,000 people. It was an eye-opening experience, and one that was more rewarding than I ever thought possible.
Back home, here in the United States—one of the wealthiest countries in the world—it could easily be assumed that access to dental care is not a problem. But sadly, this is not the case. While debate about healthcare rages on in the US, dental care has been conspicuously absent from the discussion.
The statistics are sobering. Last year 100 million Americans did not visit a dentist. More than 47 million people live in places where it is difficult to access dental care. The US Department of Health and Human Services estimates that there are nearly 4,600 dental health professional shortage areas nationwide.
According to Oral Health America’s 2013 State of Decay report, the oral health of many Americans is suffering, with more than half of the country rated as “fair” or “poor” when it comes to minimal standards affecting dental care access for older adults.
It is sad but not surprising that when times get tough—as they did for so many during the recent great recession—people put off visits to the dentist. For far too many Americans, dentistry is a luxury and not a priority. Patients who are struggling financially often defer regular dental care and opt to live with infection and pain. It impacts their health and quality of life.
Typically, when people don’t have a regular dentist they turn to our nation’s hospitals when an emergency strikes. Recently, a new analysis from Rutgers University found that the use of emergency departments for dental care—especially by young adults in low-income communities—poses a huge challenge for our nation.
For me, that eye-opening trip to Haiti is what spurred me to take on a leadership role in Aspen Dental’s Healthy Mouth Movement, a community giving initiative designed to deliver free dental care to thousands of people in need in communities across the United States, and oral health education to millions more. Through the Healthy Mouth Movement, dentists and team members from Aspen Dental practices across 27 states will devote a day to providing much-needed dental care to those who need it most—free of charge, no questions asked. Moreover, the newly constructed Aspen Dental MouthMobile, a fully equipped dental office on wheels, goes directly into communities to not only provide free service but also raise awareness.
Over the past several months, I’ve been leaving my practice in Connecticut in the hands of my capable colleagues and traveling around the country with the Healthy Mouth Movement, teaming up with Oral Health America and local community partners in towns and communities across the US. The need I’ve seen and the patients I have met along the way continue to reinforce to me the necessity for cooperation from both the public and private sectors.
“Dental care is the most common unmet health need in the US. Yet while the debate about healthcare has dominated the headlines in recent months, there has been very little discussion about oral health,” said Beth Truett, president and CEO of Oral Health America. “The Healthy Mouth Movement is a great opportunity for us to continue to not just raise awareness about these important issues, but also to connect people who need dental care with local resources.”
Dentistry is a generous profession. There are myriad ways to give back, whether through individual volunteer efforts or through great organizations like Missions of Mercy and the American Dental Association’s Give Kids A Smile program, in addition to the Healthy Mouth Movement. By working together, we can make a difference.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chedly Schatzie Vincent, DMD
Dr. Vincent is a practicing dentist who owns the Aspen Dental practice in Fairfield, Connecticut and serves as clinical lead on Aspen Dental’s Healthy Mouth Movement.