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Seeing Dentistry as More Than a Job

By Krystal Mattox | January 31, 2017

by Krystal Donaldson

As a third year dental student, the world of dentistry is still vastly obscure to me. I have overcome some of the initial fears of treating patients, such as giving my first anesthetic injection, doing my first filling and completing my first root canal therapy. I am a bit more confident in clinic because of practical experiences I’ve had and knowing the Lord will help me with each and every appointment. Praise God! However, many things about dentistry still leave me feeling very confused. I cannot reconcile the immense need patients have for dental care with the inability to afford treatment. How can we as a society distinguish between profit and healthcare? Are they always at odds?

I concede that dentistry (as well as other health professions) is a “job” that requires payment for professionals to have a livelihood. From conversations I’ve had with current dental professionals, I know the overhead cost for running a practice is absurd. I also acknowledge that sometimes patients really don’t understand the importance of dentistry and that by just re-budgeting their spending, they could probably afford treatment. However, what breaks my heart are those individuals who see the value of dentistry and want oral healthcare but find themselves in difficult financial situations impeding their ability to afford dental care.  I currently have two patients with a periapical radiolucency at the apex of one of their maxillary central incisors, and although getting care at the dental school is substantially cheaper than private practice, they still cannot afford the treatment. Both patients are currently asymptomatic and seem to understand the importance of getting root canal therapy after I emphasized the dangers of doing nothing. Yet, let’s be real—most individuals cater to the financial needs right before them demanding their attention (food, rent, bills, tuition, etc.) so there isn’t much left for “elective” things. Even if the patient wanted to save up for the treatment, a periapical radiolucency is like a ticking bomb—you never know when it will turn symptomatic at best or an acute abscess with swelling at worst. With fascial spaces, a simple dental infection can turn deadly without warning. This is the tragedy of capitalism and healthcare.
A renowned example of the heartbreak regarding oral healthcare and financial constraints occurred in Maryland to a 12-year-old boy named Deamonte Driver in 2007. Noticing something was wrong, Deamonte’s mother tried to locate a dentist who took Medicaid. Unable to find one, she took her son to the emergency room. Deamonte was merely given medication and sent on his way. Without warning, Deamonte found himself hospitalized as the infection from that tooth spread to his brain. Despite heroic efforts and multiple surgeries, Deamonte succumbed to the infection and passed away. His hospital bill was somewhere around $250,000. What makes this incident even more devastating is that a simple extraction of that tooth would have cost approximately $80 and saved Deamonte’s life. Since this unfortunate incident, Maryland has since made numerous legislation and significant progress in increasing access to dental care. However, there is still so much more to do. I see it at every Mission of Mercy (MOM) I attend. MOM is a free two-day dental clinic for adults that is hosted in various locations in Maryland (and other states) annually or biennially. People line up for hours/days before the clinic opens despite rain or chilly temperatures. The dental team that participates in this clinic consists of volunteers. It is a great opportunity to serve, but it really demonstrates the need—at every MOM, we turn away hundreds of patients because we do not have the resources or time to treat everyone.

Of course, this topic is too convoluted for me to fully understand or fix. However, I sense the Lord calling me to do something about this issue. I don’t know what that’s going to look like. As a dental student concerned merely about my own livelihood, it’s easy to say that in my future practice I will dedicate a couple hours a week so patients unable to afford treatment can get procedures done for free. Or that I’m going to participate in mission trips or consider opening a community health clinic instead of a private practice. I am certain the pressures of a family and the allure of prestige and nice things will make me question my “ability” to help the underserved, the fellow image bearers of God, but aren’t the earthly sacrifices worth being obedient to the Lord, who has done so much for me?

I am certain the Lord has called each of us to different things within dentistry. For some, He has called you to be in private practice, for others opening a community clinic, serving Him oversees or being in academia and so forth. I think it is all notable! If Jesus has called you to do something, then that is what you ought to do! In the parable of the talents in Matthew 25, all three individuals received different measures and it is how they utilized what the Master gave them that determined their reward. Within our calling, we are to use our gifts to glorify God and to help the most vulnerable of our society (Luke 14:12-14). It starts with us saying yes to Jesus. May the Lord guide us on how to practically serve Him through dentistry.

“Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works’” (Matthew 16:24-27, NKJV).


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