Catalyst for Change
When advocacy and dentistry converge along a career path
I grew up on stories of how my grandfather, an ethnic Pakistani living in China, served the American volunteer squadron of the Flying Tigers during World War II. Today, many in Kunming, where those aviators were based, reminisce about the doctor who stayed behind after the war for the sake of improving health care, one patient at a time. Inspired by my grandfather’s pursuit of service through medicine, I aspire to improve access to care for the marginalized. However, I took the path of entrepreneurship to do more for many.
It was at Tufts School of Dental Medicine where I developed the confidence to become a change agent. The residents of Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood, which the school also calls home, face cultural, financial and political barriers to care. As an ethnic Chinese, Indian and Pakistani who speaks fluent Cantonese, Mandarin and Yunnanese, I understood the community and felt obligated to challenge the status quo. I founded the Boston Chinatown Outreach Initiative to screen, educate and provide referrals to thousands of patients.
After graduation, I was a postdoctoral fellow/resident at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where I managed trauma victims, gave clearance for organ transplants and treated cancer patients with orofacial pain. Then I took a different path. In 2006, I founded Lux Dental in Quincy, Massachusetts, a practice that would embody what I believe: We shall provide the highest standards of dental care to a needy segment of the population in a sustainable, responsible and profitable manner. The name is derived from Tufts’ motto, Pax et Lux (peace and light).
Our “patient special” was the $1 exam.
With $7 to my name, I took out a loan and recruited my girlfriend, LoAn Huynh, and best friend, Saeed Kashefi, to help me establish the business. We incorporated through LegalZoom, the cheapest option. We networked the computers, all three of them, and set up the only operatory. We bought all the furniture from a foreclosure. No one had a clue about how to handle insurance back then. Our “patient special” was the $1 exam. We promoted it by putting fliers on car windshields and moving a sandwich board around the neighborhood. Everyone who walked through the door was treated like family. By the end of the year, we had more than 5,000 active patients.
There have been many struggles along the way—managing staff, patients and different personalities has always been the most difficult. Yet nearly a decade later, the practice has expanded into Cambridge and Saugus, and there now are 12 dentists.
Standing Up for Patients
My commitment to providing care to Medicaid and Medicare beneficiaries has remained firm, but the unstable nature of dental benefits from MassHealth, the Commonwealth’s Medicaid program, has been challenging. The economic cycle determines what the state allocates for MassHealth dental benefits. Historically, these have ranged from providing near-comprehensive coverage to just cleanings, exams and extractions. From the legislative perspective, dental care is seen as an option, not a right or even a need. As a clinician, I see firsthand the results of decisions made in the halls of government. Many of my patients have lost their dignity and their opportunity to find a job and live a normal life. My diagnosis was that legislators did not understand the value of oral health and that the public did not fight hard enough to ensure access to care. We have the responsibility to change this.
With no experience in advocacy, but armed with a nice suit and tie, I headed to Beacon Hill in 2010 to speak on behalf of my patients. I was ineffective. MassHealth dental benefits were eliminated completely for adults starting that year. In the years since, I have become a student of policy, serving on the Massachusetts Dental Society’s Political Action Committee and Council on Public Affairs. Our profession and the MDS have had some success. Most recently, MassHealth has expanded coverage to include dentures and restorative treatment. I would like to see dental coverage for the elderly become an essential benefit, similar to the pediatric coverage included in the Affordable Care Act.
Along with all of you, I aspire to do more.
Abdul Abdulwaheed is the president and CEO of Lux Dental Network; founder of the Cure All Foundation; chair of the Massachusetts Dental Society Council on Public Affairs and vice chair of the MDS Political Action Committee/People’s Committee.