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Hispanic Heritage Month: A Conversation with the Hispanic Dental Association

At DentaQuest, we’re committed to supporting and increasing access to oral health care and health education in the Hispanic community every month of the year. As part of Hispanic Heritage Month, which honors the cultures and contributions of Hispanic Americans and commemorates heritage rooted in Latin American countries, DentaQuest had the opportunity to connect with Hispanic Dental Association Executive Director and CEO, Dr. Manuel A. Cordero, and HDA Service & Outreach Chair, Dr. Christina Meiners, for a conversation about oral health.

Here’s what Cordero and Meiners had to share about the unique challenges the Hispanic population faces in oral health and how their Hispanic heritage has influenced their own oral health journeys.

Why did you choose to enter the oral health profession? Did your Hispanic heritage influence that decision at all?

Cordero: From an early age, I was fascinated by science and by understanding why things happen the way they do. I’ve known since I was 8 years old that I wanted to help people figure out and solve the ailments they had. I grew up in Puerto Rico but came to the U.S. in order to study pre-medicine at Haverford College in Haverford, Pennsylvania. I was on track to go to medical school and become a doctor, until one day, I had a toothache and visited a local dentist. From that day on my life changed. During my appointment, I realized that the dentist had all the technology and tools he needed to figure out the problem, deliver the care he needed and provide the patient with simple, clear instructions. It was obvious to me that a career in dentistry was my calling.

Meiners:  I was born in the Rio Grande valley and my mother was a registered nurse. Growing up with a nurse for a mom, I was surrounded by her passion for science, which translated to me. But around the south Texas border, there were never a lot of doctors that looked like me. I didn’t ever think about becoming a dentist until I had braces. Having a straight smile changed my confidence and I remember thinking — what if I could help someone else feel this same way?

What unique challenges does the Hispanic population face when it comes to oral health?

Meiners: By far, the biggest challenge is the language barrier Hispanic and Latin Americans too often experience at the dentist’s office. Being in the dentist’s chair is an extremely vulnerable experience, one that is even more difficult if the patient is unable to communicate with the dentist. Many of my patients don’t know how to complain or explain what is wrong or what’s hurting in English. You can see the relief they feel when I switch to Spanish — their shoulders relax, their eyes light up and are immediately more at ease.

Cordero: Another challenge is navigating the population’s oral health competency. It’s part of Hispanic culture growing up that you only see the doctor when something is wrong. There is no preventive care or education on the importance of oral health or what to do to keep a healthy mouth. And, the older the patient is, the harder it is to help them understand how critical oral health care is.

As providers, can you share any patient stories about challenges faced by Hispanic patients?

Meiners: I recently had a patient come into the clinic for an emergency related to his front tooth. After taking an X-ray and returning to further examine the tooth, I noticed a growth in the back of his throat. When I brought it up to him, he was adamant that I shouldn’t focus on it because, “it didn’t hurt.” He didn’t care what it was or if it needed to be treated — he was worried about missing more work or having to pay for it. Many Hispanic patients who come into my clinic have the same attitude. They are only looking for one area — the one that hurts — to be fixed.

What do you love most about being a dentist?

Cordero: I love that every single day, I am able to directly change a life — whether it’s by restoring a smile, making a patient’s gums healthy, or educating about the proper way to brush your teeth. I get to help my community receive quality care and explain to the world that oral health matters.

DentaQuest is a member and supporting sponsor of the Hispanic Dental Association, the leading voice for Hispanic oral health. It provides service, education-research, advocacy, and leadership for all health care professionals to promote overall health of the Hispanic and underrepresented communities.