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Access to dental care, opportunity to care

April 24, 2014
As a dental assistant, volunteer opportunities will give you a wonderful feeling

If you’re reading this, you no doubt have a healthy smile. After all, we are in the smile business. With this in mind, picture this — it’s dark, in the wee hours of the morning, and you’re standing in line with hundreds of other people who, just like you, are waiting for dental treatment. Maybe it’s for a cleaning, an overdue filling, or a more complicated procedure. What we take for granted as dental professionals every day is a struggle for hundreds of thousands of people nationwide.

Dental care is either unavailable or an unaffordable luxury for many adults from coast to coast. It’s common these days to find adults with severe pain, discomfort, and embarrassment due to poor oral health. A pretty good safety net for children’s dental needs has been in place for quite some time, but in recent years we’ve seen situations where even children have fallen through the cracks or even died due to limited access to proper dental care. By now I’m sure many of you have heard of the growing number of Missions of Mercy (MOM) Projects (or Dental Access Days [DAD] if you’re from South Carolina) that are becoming more prevalent to address this growing epidemic. These initiatives are serving some very large needs in our communities.

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What you may not realize is that it is no longer just the “indigent” that are seeking dental care. Many of the patients coming to these events have had very good dental care in the past, but due to changes in the economy, such as downsizing of companies and loss of employment, they’ve lost their dental benefits. I’ve been on the steering committee for the South Carolina Dental Association (SCDA) DAD Project since its inception more than six years ago, and it’s a very humbling experience to speak with people who can no longer afford the care that they once had, leaving DAD as their only option. It did not matter what the backgrounds of these people were, where they came from, or what they did for a living. Everyone who came through was extremely grateful they were treated with dignity and respect and were not judged for seeking care in this setting. It’s not uncommon to have individuals come in for care one day, and then return the following day to volunteer and “pay it forward.”

In this age of hustle and bustle, it’s easy to get caught up in the daily cycle of getting up, going to work, shuttling children, making dinner, and repeating it all over, day after day. We tend to not look at the needs outside of our own little world, not because we don’t care, but because too often we’re too busy or tired.

It can be daunting to volunteer for an event with the magnitude of access to care projects, especially if you’ve never participated in one. As we near the halfway mark of the calendar year, a time that is typically not thought of as the “Season of Giving,” let me encourage you not to wait until the end of the year. Give of your time and talents now! Your community needs you!

Check with your state dental association for opportunities. As a dental assistant, you may be asked to help set up for the event, triage patients, take radiographs, sterilize instruments, register patients, check patients out, or assist a doctor chairside. It’s not easy to assist a dentist you may not know, or to use materials you’re not familiar with, but in my experience, dental assistants always rise to the occasion. Share the information with your doctor and teammates, and register the entire office to attend as a group. What a great way to bond.

MOM and DAD Projects are not the only way for you to be able to share your time and talents in your community. Check with community-run clinics, and don’t forget about Give Kids A Smile. These events are always looking for volunteers and would be eternally grateful for an extra pair of hands.

If you ask anyone who has taken the opportunity to volunteer at any of these events, they will tell you they got much more from participating than what they gave. Were volunteers mentally and physically exhausted by the end of the day or weekend? Absolutely! Would they do it again? Definitely! The opportunity to give the gift of a smile to those in the greatest of need, with only a heartfelt handshake or hug as payment, is really the greatest gift of all.

Lori Pascall, CDA, CPFDA, CRFDA, FADAA, is the 2013-2014 president of the American Dental Assistants Association.