There has been a long running stigma around dentistry that has prevented those in need from having access to care. I’m aware that this is a heavily discussed topic in the dental community as I am finishing up my undergrad and preparing to enter it.
The experiences I had working in an oral surgeon’s office as a surgical assistant were the most amazing I have ever had, yet also put many things into perspective for me. Growing up in Massapequa is similar to, well, living in a bubble. Except no one in this bubble has any financial problems or social struggles for the most part. The school parking lot consisted of the finest jeeps, range rovers, and audi’s. Massapequa had many luxuries that I took for granted everyday, but the oral surgeon’s office takes patients from all over Long Island. I learned that everyone has pain whether they can afford it or not. During my time working in the office, there were many patients walking in hoping for a discount and pleading for someone to relieve their pain. In one instance the surgeon walked into the exam room to prepare for an extraction by locally numbing the area so the patient wouldn’t feel a thing. It’s worth noting that the surgeons did not charge for this part of the procedure. Then after a few minutes when the doctor walked out, the patient stood up, grabbed the forceps, and pulled out his own tooth to avoid the $700 bill I had prepared for him in his chart. People are having trouble getting the care they need and have to resort to these types of solutions to help themselves. If that isn’t proof enough that dentistry is necessary and not just cosmetic I don’t know what else is. Unfortunately these situations are all too common.
Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan’s article titled “The Painful Truth About Teeth” is just as it sounds. Teeth can be painful yet many struggle to get treatment. The article discusses the experience of a patient named Dee Matello. She waited at a pro bono clinic in an underserved area for 10 hours before being told she needed to leave and come back the next day, “You have to be kidding!” yelled a frustrated woman behind Matello. “I have to do this all over again? Matello’s eyes filled with tears. She had been waiting 10 hours. A volunteer gave her a wristband that would put her at the head of the line the next day. So she drove home in her 18-year-old Jeep, ate dinner chewing only on the right side yet again, and set her alarm.” Not being able to see a dentist when needed is not only physically painful but emotionally taxing as well. This is sadly another example of the government prioritizing other forms of medicine over dentistry leaving people without insurance to fend for themselves. The reality is that this is not a purely cosmetic profession and watching this for myself for three months made their struggles real for me. Disconnecting the stigma associated with dentistry is imperative to the people who need it most.
This lack of access is similar to that seen in Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid where participants in a study weren’t given the treatment they needed to stay alive because the researchers valued their data collection more than their lives. Washington investigated, “In 1932, the U.S. Public Health Service inaugurated its Study of the Syphilis in the Untreated Negro Male(“tuskegee Syphilis Study”), which promised free medical care to about six hundred sick, desperately poor sharecroppers in Mason County, Alabama.” What Jordan and Sullivan’s article lacks is this side of pro-bono work. Washington continues to explain that the study was designed to observe the disease in Black men as they believed that it progressed differently for them. To accomplish this the scientists, “decided to document this by finding a pool of infected Black men, withholding treatment from them, and then charting the progression of symptoms and disorders.” There is a whole other obstacle that Medical Apartheid has helped me to realize that is not being recognized by the dental community as a problem worth addressing. How can people even trust these kind acts of free dental care and how can the medical profession prove themselves as allies after such a dark history? This was something that the office could never teach me. Mostly due to the fact that the people who know of this history and are of it repeating are clearly not going to walk into an office. This is the extremely important side of lack of access that involves years of oppression and having to build a trust with patients that are rightly scared of the doctor.
This knowledge, in my opinion should be shared throughout the dental community in an effort to not only confront the government about their part in providing more opportunity to care, but also the dental community’s part in being knowledgeable about the history of the medical profession. If this responsibility of making patients feel safe is not acted upon this leaves a hurdle that government reforms won’t be able to fix.