Delivering dental care a global endeavor

Academy of LDS Dentists nears 30 years of humanitarian service

Healthy teeth are like shoe laces, wristwatches and 10-year-old can openers — all are useful items we rely on almost daily and don't think about much.

Until they break down.

Many can enjoy relief from a toothache or maybe a broken bicuspid after an hour or two in the neighborhood dentist's chair. But for others — including many Church members — reliable dental care remains a wish.

For almost three decades, hundreds of LDS dental professionals have worked together to help such "neighbors" in whatever corner of the world they might live. Charged with the mission to "provide manpower and expertise in dental care delivery," members of the Academy of LDS Dentists continue to care for countless teeth in developing areas of the world.

But their efforts stretch beyond cleaning, drilling and filling. Each year, academy members share their expertise with thousands of fellow professionals who would otherwise have limited access to the latest dentistry developments.

Most LDS dentists are balancing family duties, Church callings and professional obligations. But dentists such as Robert Boyer say participating in the Academy of LDS Dentists has become a highlight of their careers.

"It is a blessing to see people's lives improve — to help people smile," said Dr. Boyer, a Utah dentist and a former stake president.

The academy was organized in 1978 under the direction of Dr. Gordon J. Christensen, a practicing dentist and noted educator and researcher. Originally called the BYU Academy of Dentists, the organization offers LDS dentists — and a few colleagues who are not Church members — an opportunity to serve, learn, teach and fellowship together. The organization is not sponsored by the Church.

"We wanted to establish a network of LDS dentists," said Dr. Christensen. The academy functions as a "commodity" in the Church's bishop's storehouse, consecrating its collective expertise and training for those in need.

Dr. Christensen told the Church News that many LDS dentists regard their education and dental practice as a sacred blessing. They feel an obligation to share their time and know-how with those less fortunate. So the academy dispatches scores of dentists, orthodontists, hygienists and other dental professionals to various parts of the world to fix and protect teeth. Their challenge can be found in Proverbs 3:27: "Withhold not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in thine hand to do it."

Academy dentists have cared for impoverished patients in China, Honduras, Peru, Israel, Ghana, Ethiopia, Tonga, Mexico and many other lands. Working with local priesthood leaders and government officials, the dentists and their teams often turn Church meetinghouses into makeshift clinics. They spend a week or two caring for folks of all ages. Their spouses or other family members, meanwhile, teach dental care to youngsters and their parents.

Education projects also define the organization. When members of the academy teach local dentists in, say, China or Ghana, about dentistry advancements, tens of thousands of future patients will benefit and enjoy healthier teeth. In past years, members of the academy have lectured to thousands of dentists in India, Brazil and Mexico. A contingent from the academy recently returned from Costa Rica and Colombia where more than 1,000 local dentists were instructed in modern-day dental techniques and materials.

LDS dentists equipped with foreign languages acquired on full-time missions are often enlisted as translators and presenters.

Meanwhile, several retired dentists and their spouses are serving as medical missionaries in various parts of the world.

The academy also focuses on helping young LDS men and women in developing nations become dentists. Since the academy's inception, hundreds of scholarships have been awarded to hard-working students, said Dr. Boyer.

Fellowship is also key in the academy. Each year, the group gathers for a conference at BYU to discuss the professional and spiritual challenges and opportunities facing LDS dentists. An extensive on-line networking system has been set up to help academy members locate job opportunities and collect referrals.

Much is expected in the next 30 years, said Dr. Christensen. "We're still an E-mail to: [email protected]