I was brought up to believe in the importance of giving something back. I’m lucky that I’m financially stable with a job I love, but I don’t believe in living in a middle-class bubble. To be comfortable in my own skin and to be a role model to my children, I have to feel I’m doing some good for the wider community.
I’ll never forget the day my braces came off and I was able to smile with confidence at people for the first time in years. In old family photos, you can see the transformative power that dental care can have - I was suddenly smiling instead of hiding my mouth. I think life is made up of those inspirational moments.
I studied dentistry at Sheffield University followed by further training in restorative work at the Karolinska Dental Hospital in Stockholm. As a child I loved modelling and whittling bits of wood and as an adult I love restoring teeth - that’s still the whittler in me!
Outreach work is all about building relationships
Our outreach work started because homeless people were calling our out-of-hours dental service and we realised there was a vast group of people we were only seeing when they were in agony, with 50p-sized abscesses into the bone.
We started to visit homeless drop-in centres and encourage the people who were there to have a dental check-up and then come into the surgery for follow-up appointments. We began to understand the chaotic lifestyle of these ‘hard to reach’ people, which includes the homeless, sex workers, asylum seekers and those who may be experiencing massive problems with drug and alcohol dependency as well as complex mental and physical health issues. We realised that a successful outreach programme needs to be accommodating and informal; it’s about building relationships and not being intimidating.
I believe in treating everybody the same, with a warm welcome and respect, but we realised we couldn’t simply expect people with chaotic lifestyles to come to us; we had to come to them and find out what they wanted, not tell people what we think they need.
If someone has bad tooth ache, that can be one of the biggest reasons for drug relapse or increasing alcohol consumption, in a bid to try and dull the pain. It’s a vicious circle. Our priority is to get our patients out of pain and then try to build a relationship so they come back to one of our clinics for regular check-ups.
Outreach dental problems are often extreme
Groundswell, a leading charity supporting the homeless, recently published a report on the oral health of people experiencing homelessness and, shockingly, they found that 15% of homeless people have pulled out their own teeth while 70% reported they have lost teeth since they became homeless.
The dental problems we see through the outreach programme are often extreme and not representative of this country’s population as a whole, but it’s still all about breaking cycles and helping people make behavioural changes. One 18-year-old lad broke down in tears because no one before had ever taken the time to show him how to brush his teeth properly.
The worst case I’ve seen was a woman in her early 30s who had to have 21 teeth removed because they were rotten stumps. I can’t begin to imagine the pain she’d been in but she was so happy with her new dentures. The state of her teeth was positively Dickensian.
If I can just stop the rot, by helping people understand what clean teeth feel like, I can affect real behavioural change. It’s just miraculous really the difference clean teeth can make to a person’s sense of self-worth.
More appointments for those in need
In this country our oral health care has changed dramatically thanks to fluoride toothpaste and electric toothbrushes. Patients have a better understanding of their own responsibility for dental health and don’t simply come to the dentist as a last resort to ‘fix’ their teeth.
My philosophy is that if groups of patients are hard to reach, we just make more of an effort. I’m still learning, for example, some appointment slots just won’t work because our outreach patients’ priorities will be finding somewhere to sleep for example. So, my next plan is to work with hostels, to offer a dental check-up with a bed.
We’ve treated over 1,000 homeless people with our one-day-a-week service. We know the need is there and my aim is to have a full five-day-a-week service.
With a mission to create caring technology, like the Philips Sonicare range of electric toothbrushes and Philips Sonicare AirFloss, Philips aims to help people take care of their teeth and oral health at every stage of their lives.
Philips sponsors HumanKind.
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