Op-ed: Latinx dental providers are paving the way to equitable health care access

The United States is experiencing the catastrophic consequences of a health care system focused on profits rather than the long-term well-being of patients. The dental industry creates structural inequities for all Americans, especially working class, older adults, and minority communities.

The Latino community is no exception, as there are institutional barriers and financial limitations to the dental profession. That said, there are high rates of childhood tooth loss, periodontitis, tooth decay, and tooth decay repair, and many Latino families suffer from dental anxiety. An interdisciplinary approach by Latino predental undergraduates, dental graduate students, and dental professionals exudes hope amid a dental epidemic.

The Latino Pre-Dental Association at UCLA is working to address this issue one step at a time.

Today, 68.5 million Americans do not have dental insurance, with Latinos accounting for 18% of the uninsured population, or more than 12 million people.

In fact, Covered California, a health plan that provides free or low-cost coverage through Medi-Cal, excludes adult dental coverage and considers it a non-essential benefit. However, the belief that dental care is not necessary has proven to be dangerous and neglectful, directly contributing to the deterioration of patient health.

According to Delta Dental of New Jersey, dentists can identify nearly 120 conditions in a patient's mouth, including kidney disease, anemia and diabetes. Therefore, increasing and maintaining dental coverage is critical to equitable care as it prevents irreversible disease throughout the body.

While current dental care providers and insurance companies contribute to delays, inaccessibility, and unaffordability of care, diversifying the dental industry is an important step toward solving these challenges. By adopting cultural humility, cultivating intimacy and empathy, and implementing comprehensive oral health education programs, the dental profession can shift toward prioritizing preventive care over reactive treatments.

In 2018, my mother, who was 52 years old at the time, Spanish-speaking, uninsured, and undocumented, experienced a traumatic accident that knocked out her upper front teeth. This resulted in her withdrawing from society, hiding her smile, refusing to attend family gatherings, and having her eyes swollen from constant crying. As a 15-year-old girl, it was extremely painful for me to see her suffering from shame, anxiety, and depression that I couldn't alleviate. My family was struggling financially, but we ultimately decided that investing in her prosthetics was necessary to address her mental and dental health issues.

It was her first visit to the dentist in 25 years.

Although the rest of her upper teeth were intact, the first dental office insisted on treatment with full dentures rather than partial dentures. In short, the dentist will remove all of her upper teeth.

In addition to exacerbating her anxiety and fear about dentistry, my mother’s complete dentures failed to stay in the correct position, resulting in uneven chewing and difficulty speaking—all side effects of low-quality complete dentures. Despite her concerns, the clinic and medical provider turned her away and only recommended that she purchase dental bonding. This response lacked respect and sensitivity and unfairly shifted the burden onto my mother.

Proper dental care is demonstrated when the provider understands the novelty of dentures and is determined to meet the patient's needs.

A few months later, at another dental office, a Spanish-speaking dentist emphasized the importance of preserving natural teeth for daily dental function. Unfortunately, my mother’s uninsured, low-income, and undocumented status meant she was unable to pursue other clinic options or treatment options. Our profit-focused dental system forces our most vulnerable patients to sacrifice quality of care for the sake of financial stability.

As I browsed UCLA, I realized that my mother’s experience with tooth loss was not unique and was just one of millions.

Since its inception last spring quarter, LPDS members have engaged in various forms of patient care, including providing services in bilingual clinical spaces, meeting the needs of patients with special requirements, and providing support to undocumented individuals who may face unique barriers. .

From participation in community service and wellness workshops to practice advocacy, LPDS models leadership and opportunities by highlighting these challenges and increasing exposure to the dental profession.

In these dental settings, LPDS members work with patient populations from marginalized communities, expanding on traditional roles in dental scoring, language translation, and patient intake. When volunteers attend health fairs, the number of patients exceeds provider capacity, hampering patient-provider relationships. LPDS members use an empathetic approach to develop trust through active listening practices, eliminate misunderstandings by conducting educational oral health presentations, improve patient retention and increase access to resources.

Through these efforts, LPDS has witnessed how compassionate care and education can positively impact patients’ understanding of oral health—creating healthier habits and taking proactive steps toward long-term dental health.

Going forward, LPDS aims to record anecdotes from patients, dental professionals, and organizational members to inform dental policy discussions. This includes stories of patients being denied dental services because of their income, uninsured or undocumented status, and special needs.

Latinx Pre-Dental Society members pose with In Motion dentists in Pomona, providing exceptional care to patients.  (Courtesy of Javier Rodriguez Rivera)
Members of the Latino Pre-Dental Association pose with In Motion dentists in Pomona, providing care to patients. (Courtesy of Javier Rodriguez-Rivera)

While more Latino dental providers will not eliminate all dental inequities, they will undoubtedly improve the accessibility, affordability, and cultural sensitivity of dental care for underserved Latino communities.

This silent epidemic has left us with an important question: How can we redefine the success of dental care from merely treating existing problems to actively preventing them, which will lead to long-term oral health and overall well-being for all , regardless of their socioeconomic status or cultural upbringing?

To Yesenia (Ochoa) Olaez, who tragically lost her life on March 2: Thank you for the deep love, empathy, and understanding you embodied in your patient care.

Javier Rodriguez-Rivera is a third-year pre-dental, Chicana/o, and Central American studies student and co-vice president of the UCLA Latino Pre-Dental Association .

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