Anh Vu Sawyer, Executive Director of the Southeast Asian Coalition of Central Massachusetts and Health Care For All's supporter authored an op-ed that was published today on the Worcester Telegram and Gazette. In this piece, she shares her struggle to access dental care and her take on why oral health integration is crucial to improve access to preventive care especially for the immigrant community in the state.
As I See It: Flying to Asia to see a dentist?
As a director for the Southeast Asian Coalition of Central Massachusetts, I am quite concerned about the health care disparities my constituents have been struggling with due to their cultural and language barriers. However, a recent tooth ache that almost landed me in the ER gave me an insight into one simple step that may improve people’s overall health and make healthcare accessible and effective for many, especially the Limited English Proficient populations.
In January, right before my first vacation in four years, I ended up having to get an emergency medical appointment because of a high fever. I found out that this was due to the fact that a couple of years before, two of my teeth broke. Because there was no pain at that time, it wasn’t a big deal, so I didn’t do anything about it. But less than 24 hours before my trip to Europe, one of my broken teeth became infected and I was asked to cancel my trip. “No, my husband and I have to take this trip. Many events and appointments will be cancelled if we cancel.” That’s what I told the dentist who finally gave me very strong antibiotics so that the infection didn’t spread while on vacation. But he only did that with my solemn cross-my-heart promise that I would take care of the problem immediately once I was back in the U.S.
The antibiotic had unpleasant side effects and helped me to promptly keep my promise. I went to the dentist and was told I needed two root canals among other treatments and that would cost me around $5,000. I had dental insurance, but it would only cover 10 percent of the cost. I understood then that my dental insurance wasn’t really insurance; it worked more like a discount card. This preventable infection had been not only painful for my mouth, but also for my pocket, and almost ruined my sanity (I very much needed a vacation).
I was born and raised in Vietnam but I have been in this country for over 40 years. I am an educated and accomplished woman. I lead a wonderful community-based organization in Worcester that handles almost 10,000 visits a year and helps hundreds of refugees, immigrants and low-income residents to rebuild their lives and strengthen their communities. And I am a US citizen. What a gift! I might be Americanized in many ways. But not in every way. In my culture, at least where I grew up, oral health is not a priority and you don’t go to see a dental professional unless you really have to (i.e. life or death). For many years, because of my busy schedule, being frugal, and the lack of understanding the importance of healthy teeth, I didn’t visit a dentist. And for many years, I didn’t get a regular cleaning or a checkup - “It’s OK, because I brush and floss my teeth daily,” I reasoned with myself. I had to learn my mistake the hard way.
Many of us in the immigrant community experience language, cultural and financial barriers accessing this type of preventive care. Many of my fellow immigrants forego oral health care altogether. Some go as far as traveling to their home countries to get any dental procedure because it is cheaper to travel overseas and see a dentist than crossing the street to the dental office in their neighborhood. In one of our surveys, quite a few folks mentioned the money they saved from not seeing an American dentist covered the round trip airfares that they happily used to visit families. This doesn’t make any sense.
Read the whole article here.