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Sustainability: Another great way of giving back

Dr Les Kalman believes that giving back through sustainable dental practices not only will help protect the health of our planet but also will have a positive impact on patients and dental students. (Image: Les Kalman)

Fri. 28. October 2022


As dental professionals, we have amazing opportunities to give back. Associations, organisations and academia promote and support the idea of giving back, and many have mandates to encourage reinvesting in the community.

When I graduated in 1999, I was asked to serve as an adjunct clinical professor. The thought of a new graduate like myself instructing a student was bittersweet: an honour to be considered but also very nerve-racking, as I wondered whether I could handle the role. After some deliberation, I accepted. It turned out to be a wonderful opportunity to share my experience and knowledge in order to help students achieve the best possible results. I did this for several years and cherished the new friendships, rewarding collaborations and opportunities to help educate future dentists. During that time, it never once crossed my mind how little I was actually getting remunerated for my time (okay, maybe just once). I viewed it as an incredible chance to give back to the students, the dental school and the profession.

Later in my career, I had the opportunity to become a full-time faculty member. The position required that I accept the lead to establish and operate a dental outreach programme. That is when those bittersweet emotions of the past crept back up again. Ironically, I had completed a dental mission in Ecuador some years prior to this and had pitched the idea of outreach to the local dental organisation and the dental school.

I accepted the position and established the programme, which provided free comprehensive dental treatment to those with a lack of financial means. It was a fantastic platform to give back to some very deserving patients, to local communities and to the profession. The hours were extremely long, and the work was challenging, but the outcomes were incredible. The programme provided additional education, new opportunities, fresh professional collaborations and essential treatment for patients.

Both of those paths are common ways of giving back and have very tangible results. I know that many readers and colleagues have given back in some form or another, and that is commendable. However, there is a less obvious way of giving back with less tangible results, and that is giving back through sustainable dental practices. I would like to invite my dental colleagues to consider investing their resources to help our deserving planet.

I was recently part of the group responsible for the formulation of the Consensus Statement on Environmentally Sustainable Oral Healthcare. It was an opportunity to bring my knowledge of environment and resource management to the table. This was knowledge that I had gained before my dental training. Many of the environmental issues that are occurring today were predicted decades ago, with little to no action having been undertaken in the interim. However, now there is a call to action, and quite frankly, it is an urgent one.

Start the conversation by talking about dental sustainability with your staff, colleagues, dental representatives and patients.

The consensus statement is very detailed and discusses many actions to help improve sustainability. I would like to highlight a few simple action items that are quite easy to implement immediately.

Firstly, start the conversation by talking about dental sustainability with your staff, colleagues, dental representatives and patients. There has to be an increase in awareness and exposure. Please make sure to have the discussion with a smile, an open mind and a non-judgemental dialogue. Whenever the topic of change is mentioned, it should be packaged appropriately. Secondly, consider simple steps to reduce single-use plastics in your clinical workflow without compromising the standard of care. Consider recycling clinical waste. There are now safe alternatives that may be present in your locality. Do some googling, chat with locals and you may be surprised what new options are out there.

Additionally, educate your patients on the importance of preventive care. Dental problems are best avoided, and your patients should understand that concept. Consider proposing definitive treatment instead of patchwork. Definitive treatment can solve the problem and prevent multiple appointments for the same recurring issue. If you could reduce one vehicular trip to the dental clinic per patient, that would add up to a reduction in carbon emissions. Explain the negative outcomes of tourism dentistry, both in terms of standard of care and the negative impact on sustainability.

Finally, rethink some of your traditional workflows and consider whether a digital alternative or a hybrid, fusion alternative would be beneficial for reducing materials and saving time. The pandemic has illuminated how valuable digital dentistry can be, and employing technology can have a positive impact on sustainability.

All of these action items require some form of commitment, either in time or finances. This is difficult to ask during a very challenging economic period. However, the benefits of giving back will greatly exceed the demands of commitment. It is well understood that everything on the planet is interrelated. By improving sustainability, we have the opportunity to maintain and perhaps improve our fragile planet. This will be incredibly beneficial and, oddly enough, will have a positive impact on patients and dental students across the globe.

Editorial note:

A list of references can be obtained from the publisher upon request.

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