Pondering our YES – Ways for dentists to serve those less fortunate
Dr. Corina Gottschling & Dr. Dave Stevenson
This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of FOCUS.
Healthcare professionals have nearly limitless opportunities to help the poor and marginalized both within their communities and beyond. Because the needs are so great, our challenge is not in finding recipients, but rather it is in pondering what God would have us say YES to.
The area that quickly comes to mind for most of us is that health care teams can participate in rewarding and life changing overseas mission trips. Faith based organizations such as Health Teams International, Samaritan’s Purse and other CMDS affiliates are some of the many organizations that co-ordinate medical-dental mission trips throughout the year. Also, church denominational groups are often involved in similar trips, usually in association with missionaries that they support.
A number of years ago, we had the privilege of participating in this type of a mission trip to Cochabamba, Bolivia, arranged through the Canadian Baptists in partnership with the Bolivian Baptists. One of the things that we really appreciated about this trip was that the local Bolivians were responsible for identifying their needs and also were committed to raising some of their own capital and working alongside the Canadian volunteers. We were able to set up a two operatory dental clinics in a room of a local church which was staffed by local volunteer dental personnel after our departure. This Church set up a collective fund with the local people to defray the costs of providing care, allowing many in need to have their dental health improved. This type of partnership was very effective in creating a ministry that “lived on” after our team left the country.
Global impact can also be affected from home. Years ago, rather than exchanging gifts at Christmas, our team made the decision to sponsor a child in Africa. Each Christmas, team members donate money which is then matched by our doctors and used for our child’s yearly sponsorship. Our first child was a boy named Assistant. We thought this was fitting for a dental team! He has since completed the program and we now have a little girl named Tabu. We all look forward to receiving the sponsorship updates and are excited to be part of enriching this young girl’s life.
Although there are most certainly great needs abroad, many of our neighbours here at home are likewise in need. According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, one in six Canadians (approximately 6 million) needing dental treatment avoid going to the dentist because of cost.
Adults with severe dental pain may miss work, which has a financial impact for them and can put them at risk of losing their jobs. Children likewise may miss school, valuable sleep, and often have growth and development issues when suffering from poor oral health. Many seniors are unable to eat properly due to missing or broken teeth and the pain of poorly fitting prostheses. Government and private medical plans cover lips, tongues and throats but not teeth and gums. Poor oral health has been linked to higher incidences of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, respiratory illnesses and Alzheimer’s. Sadly there are numerous stories of dental abscesses causing serious consequences for eyes, brain and heart and in some instances leading to death.
In dentistry, one of the most direct ways to care for the poor and marginalized in our communities is to provide dental care at low or no cost. April is designated as National Oral Health Month in Canada. A number of years ago in our province, the British Columbia Dental Association (BCDA) encouraged dental offices to provide free dental care for the “working poor”. This demographic was chosen because, although they are working, this group typically struggles to make ends meet due to their low incomes. They normally do not qualify for government sponsored dental care but rarely receive dental benefits through their employers. Most or all of their income is spent on the most basic necessities.
Ever since this initiative was proposed, our dental office has provided free dental care, over 2 days, during the month of April to those in need in our community. We call these days “Community Dental Days”. On the first day, our hygienists and certified dental assistants provide hygiene care and our doctors do examinations and treatment planning in order to anticipate how best to schedule these patients the following day for restorative and surgical care. Our whole team volunteers their time and has found the experience to be both personally rewarding and emotionally gratifying; not to mention the happy smiles that have been restored and renewed.
We have tried a number of approaches when determining patient selection but the two most effective strategies we’ve found are firstly, to identify existing patients within our practice that meet the criteria and second, to partner with local community assistance groups.
Low income families are often connected with community assistance groups and those who administer the programs are acutely aware of family needs and economic status. The support workers are also a valuable resource in that they are committed to helping and encouraging the patients to seek the much needed care. Often these patients have neglected their oral health and there are self-esteem barriers that stand in the way of seeking care despite it being available at low or no cost to them. Also, fear is a common factor and the support workers are, as trusted advocates, able to work alongside the dental team to help allay fears and enhance the compassionate care that is being provided.
Regardless of whether or not a dental office participates in a Community Dental Day or similar program, in the course of normal practice, other opportunities to provide charitable care arise. In most situations, dentists are at liberty to set their own fees. For patients without dental coverage, it is within the dentist’s purview to provide treatment at a more affordable cost. One example of this would be a patient who can only afford an extraction of an otherwise restorable anterior tooth. The dentist may agree to perform a restoration and collect a fee equal to the amount for an extraction. This scenario allows the patient to preserve their tooth and their self-esteem as well as avoiding the higher cost of a denture, bridge or implant supported crown to replace the missing tooth. Many factors affect the cost of the delivery of each procedure, so it is of course entirely dependent on each doctor’s discretion.
In larger centers, it is common to find low cost dental clinics that enable those with low incomes to have their dental concerns addressed. These clinics are typically non-profit organizations and function by dentists, hygienists and assistants volunteering their time or being remunerated at reduced rates when compared with private practice. Fund raising and benevolent donations are also key for these clinics to remain solvent.
Another way that our team has helped those in our community is by contacting our local women’s shelter and asking what specific needs they have. Due to the sensitive nature of circumstances surrounding the presence of the women and children in the shelter, often the immediate need is not a visit to the dental office. At one time, there was a shortage of winter coats for children and we were able to donate a number of these to help. On another occasion, the shelter was low on journals. The women are encouraged to journal as part of their emotional healing. Our team had a wonderful time purchasing journals and gluing inspiring and comforting quotations inside the front covers. Both the workers and the recipients were touched by this demonstration of care and love. Through these relatively small gestures, our team has been able to make a difference in the lives of local women and children in need.
We’ve also donated toothbrushes and toothpaste to both the Women’s shelter and the Extreme Cold Homeless shelter in our town, as often individuals needing these services arrive without the basic necessities. A small thing like a toothbrush and toothpaste can be a great comfort.
Donations of equipment can also be a unique way to serve others. A number of years ago, when we renovated and updated much of our major equipment, we were able to partner with some local Filipino nurses and the Rotary Club of Canada to ship our old, but still functioning, dental chairs and x-ray units to the Philippines. The low cost clinics mentioned previously also often accept donations of used equipment and instruments that they aren’t otherwise able to obtain due to high cost.
On a yearly basis, we do weekend team retreats. Many times these team building activities take place close to home but occasionally we have the opportunity to arrange workshops and courses in larger centers. In early June of this year, we travelled to the Vancouver, BC area for our retreat. In addition to our regular weekend activities, our team went as a group to Union Gospel Mission (UGM) in the downtown eastside of Vancouver to take a tour of their facilities and help in the kitchen at lunch time to prepare and serve meals to their clients. Although we were not addressing dental health per se, the experience helped our team in not only considering those less fortunate than ourselves but it helped to improve our understanding of the issues and struggles faced by this particular group of poor and marginalized.
In Matthew 9:35 -38 we are reminded that the workers are few:
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
The harassed and helpless and those that do not have someone to guide and protect them are all around us. We can have a positive impact on them and each other as we move through each day, both locally and globally. Just as each worker on a project or “field” may not be doing the exact same job, as each one pitches in, the job nears completion. The ideas listed above are just a few of the endless possibilities available. Let’s ask the Lord of the harvest to draw our hearts toward those parts of the “field” where He has specifically set aside work for us to do. As we are inspired by Him, all that remains is for us to cheerfully give of our time, energy and resources to do our part for His kingdom.