The Dentist Visits You - 2016

Hi Uncle and Aunty. Please Take Care of Your Teeth.

By Vatsal Suthar

The Asian Indian population has many achievements and notable accomplishments in all aspects of American culture including business, entertainment, and politics. The stereotype of a cab driver or gas attendant is a relic from the last millennia. We are now achieving many things and are getting our faces out in front of a lot more people. One thing that has not improved, however, is the outlook and importance our Indian community has placed on dental health.

I was born in this country and many aunties and uncles helped my parents raise me over the last few decades. These role models I have come to know over the last thirty years hail from all over India: Gujarat, Maharashtra, Kerala, Utter Pradesh, Bengal, and Punjab. They also represent many different types of jobs: physicians, information technology, engineering, convenience store owners, accountants, lawyers, restaurant employees, housekeepers in motels. No matter what the cultural background or level of vocation, all these people in my parent's generation had one commonality: lack of perceived value for dental care.

Since starting dental school in 2008, I have been fielding questions left and right from everyone in the Indian community I know about various dental topics. What amuses me is whenever an Indian auntie and uncle wants to challenge not only my profession but the idea of taking care of teeth altogether. “I brush my teeth every day, why do I need to go pay for a cleaning?" “Rinsing with salt water and taking this Ayurvedic pills will cure my toothaches." “Going to the dentist is a scam because they charge a lot of money for no reason." These same people are faithfully fasting every week, are diligent about getting the freshest vegetables at the Indian store, or spending stacks of money on unhealthy habits like smokeless Indian tobacco.

The generation prior to the ones that immigrated to America were all living in India where if a tooth hurt, it was taken out. They would then get a bridge or temporary mouth piece until graduating onto a full denture. All these steps were reactive steps and never proactive. In other words, people would seek the counsel of the medical school reject, also known as a dentist in India, to take care of a hurting tooth. Their children came to the United States with limited money and deep ambitions to succeed, however, they still carried the same sentiment toward dental home care as their parents in being reactive and carrying out only the cheapest treatment possible.

Now some of those same baby boomers are closing in on retirement, passing off the torch of their business to family members, or slowing down because of their bodies breaking down after years of neglect. It is easy to disregard items we do not value and allow them to waste away. If someone does not care what car they drive, they will forgo oil changes, car washes and using premium fuel. In the same regard, if many in our community skip going to the physician for routine lab work, physical exams, and screenings, what are the odds they will care about the health of their mouth to go see a dentist?

Asian Indians have shown to have a high predilection for heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers including oral cancer compared to other ethnic groups. If those aren't reasons enough for someone to see a physician, the links those illnesses have to dental health gives justification to at least add seeing your dentist. Not controlling gum disease in your mouth or active decaying teeth leads to increased bacteria swimming in your blood stream. This, in effect, leads to lowered efficacy of medications you take to control your heart disease or diabetes. With the rules for Obamacare taking effect over the last year or so, everyone should have some sort of medical insurance. Some of these even cover one dental checkup and cleaning a year.

The barrier for seeking any care based on the interactions I have had with those that are self-employed and have businesses is lack of dental insurance. There seems to be a myth that you have to have dental insurance to see the dentist and that is the furthest thing from the truth. Anyone can walk into a dental office, make an appointment, pay the fee and walk out. The process would be no different than conducting a business transaction at a department store, restaurant or jeweler. There are many insurance companies that offer individual plans for families to cover dental treatments. Plans can be $30-100 per month for various amounts of coverage. If one wanted to only get dental cleanings, x-rays, and exams for the year, it might be cheaper to not get any insurance at all and just pay the full fee at the dental office.

The three main reasons anyone avoids the dental office is money, time and fear. My observation is that most Indians can have some element of each of these as a barrier but the recurring reason I hear the most to avoiding the dentist is apathy. Dental well-being and healthcare as a whole is a reactive process for us. Instead of preventing avoidable events like a heart attack, stroke or even a toothache, we seem to opt to save our time and money in the short term. Over a lifetime, though, there is a long-term negative impact our body is taking.

While I know that dental health is not at the top of anyone's priority list (including mine), it is a critical component of our overall health. The link to heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, lung disease and even cancer from the bacteria in your mouth is well proven. The mouth is the gateway to the rest of the body and maintaining its integrity will go a long way to keeping your health goals. We are all achieving great things in this country in all arenas of life. Start taking care of yourselves and your mouths so that you can actually enjoy the lives you've wanted in this country.