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Caring for the Underserved is California Dentist's Passion

Charmaine Ng, DMD, has focused on public health over private practice throughout her career. It's a feeling she says has been ingrained since childhood, and one that she not only actively embraces, but hopes to pass on to others.
Ed Rabinowitz
PUBLISHED: Monday, February 26, 2018
Underserved, homeless, volunteer, MediCal, Denti-Cal, Peru, clinic, jewelry, Etsy

The formative years are a time period which impacts us in such a way that it has a strong influence on the rest of our lives. For many, our adolescence plays that role. For Charmaine Ng, DMD, dental director for HealthRIGHT 360, it happened while attending college at the University of California at San Diego.
 
As an undergrad, Ng volunteered her time at night at a free dental clinic, and at one point became manager of two clinic sites. Not only did the experience pique her interest in dentistry, it sparked her passion for serving the underserved.
 
“We mostly saw the homeless,” Ng recalls. “There are a lot of migrant workers in San Diego who don’t have insurance. We saw everyone regardless of their ability to pay.”
 
Dentists in the community volunteered their time at night, and college students like Ng served as dental assistants. They scheduled patients and helped coordinate the donations that included crowns and dentures from local labs, and office furniture.
 
“It was a great experience,” Ng says. “In running the clinic we had to find unique ways to get these patients care.”
 
It’s something Ng is still addressing today.
 
CHALLENGES AND RELATIONSHIPS
Ng says the biggest challenge in caring for underserved populations is the cost of dental services. Even when individuals might quality for low-income insurance like Medi-Cal or Denti-Cal, there are few providers who accept that insurance. And proximity to those who do accept the insurance is also a barrier to care.
 
Overcoming those barriers is one of Ng’s passions. Even in middle and high school, she held office in community service clubs.
 
“Wanting to give back is kind of ingrained in me,” Ng says. “It’s really rewarding because these patients are so grateful. They’re happy that someone is able to spend time with them and give them back their smile.”
 
Ng’s work with underserved populations has given her a more personal perspective on patient dental care. She believes that treating patients’ dental issues requires investing time to build a relationship of trust, as many of her patients are embarrassed about their oral health and fear judgment or pain.
 
“They come here with an already bad impression of either dentists or the healthcare system,” Ng says. “I tell them that we’re not here to judge them. We’re here to help them. And by making the decision to sit in this dental chair, that’s the first step to improving their condition; to making a change. We’re here to help them make that change.”
 
BEYOND BORDERS
As dental director, Ng is responsible for integrating dental care into HealthRIGHT’s existing programs. The organization does a lot of outreach with the homeless, and also has a transgender and women’s community clinic. Ng’s job is to coordinate dental care for that diverse demographic.
 
But her work and influence go further. Ng’s love for travel has provided her with unconventional opportunities to practice dentistry across the globe, including Peru, where she had the challenge of setting up a clinic without running water or electricity. She says it was like no other experience she has ever had.
 
“These people literally just live on a floating island, you know, in the middle of Lake Titicaca, and in Puno, Peru,” Ng says. “You have to come up with unique methods. It’s difficult, but they’re just so grateful for the service you provide. They literally don’t have any dental care.”
 
Did it make Ng more appreciative of what is sometimes taken for granted living in the United States?
 
“Yeah, it does,” she admits. “It really does put everything in perspective.”
 
CREATIVE FOCUS
In her free time, Ng makes jewelry to sell on her Etsy store. Etsy is an e-commerce website focused on handmade or vintage items. Ng says that, according to her mother, she began making jewelry as a child.
 
“I love working with my hands,” she says. “I’ve always enjoyed different types of crafting.”
 
Much of the jewelry Ng crafts is done with raw or natural stones. She finds the natural beauty more appealing than a perfectly cut diamond because that’s how the stone originated from the Earth. That passion for design, she says, is why dentistry has such a strong appeal.
 
“Dentistry is really an art form, because if you’re repairing a patient’s teeth you have to make them look good, and you have to make them functional for the patient,” she explains. “We sometimes judge people on the way their teeth look, so dentistry in itself is an art form.”
 
Ng says that many dentists make jewelry in their spare time because the techniques, like casting a gold crown, are similar. She says her passion for design translates from jewelry to dentistry and believes that all dentists need to have some creativity.
 
LIKE-MINDED PEOPLE
Ng says that one of the most rewarding aspects of the work she does is being able to work with like-minded people, mission-driven people. For example, while she’s sharing her knowledge of dentistry with her current intern, she also hopes her passion for treating the underserved will influence him to one day do the same.
 
“Hopefully, when he becomes a dentist, he’ll want to give back in some way, whether it be working at a community health clinic, or if he has a private practice, maybe offering pro bono work one day a month,” she says.
 
Seeing that legacy continue — knowing that the organization and infrastructure she has helped build at HealthRIGHT will live on long after she retires — is important to Ng.
 
“Looking back and seeing everything continue even when I’m no longer here, that would be really rewarding.”

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