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Military dentists do much more than ‘drill and fill’

U.S. Army Capt. John Mann (left), 129th Area Support Medical Company dentist, prepares dental instruments for an exam at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Dental technicians perform oral cleanings, prepare dental instruments and assist dentists with procedures. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Justyn M. Freeman) U.S. Army Capt. John Mann (left), 129th Area Support Medical Company dentist, prepares dental instruments for an exam at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Dental technicians perform oral cleanings, prepare dental instruments and assist dentists with procedures. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Justyn M. Freeman)

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It’s easy to look at dentists as specialists at “drilling and filling,” but dentists serve vital roles, educating about oral health and acting as advance scouts for problems with a patient’s overall physical well-being.

“Our prime goals are to preserve the natural teeth for as long as possible, stop the progress of the disease that causes cavities, and provide patients with the information and equipment to ensure they can keep teeth healthy throughout their life,” said Army Capt. George Hauser, Officer in Charge at the Fort Detrick Dental Clinic in Frederick, Maryland.

Hauser described one patient who was so afraid of receiving dental care that she avoided seeing a dentist for years. Decay had become so extensive that her front teeth were mottled black.

“After I removed the decay and restored her front teeth, she looked in the mirror and started crying,” said Hauser. For years she had been covering her mouth with her hand when she spoke with people to mask the shame she felt about her diseased teeth.

“This is the true reward in the profession of dentistry,” said Hauser, “the ability to affect a profound change in another person.”

General dentistry involves many tasks, including cleaning, examining, repairing teeth and surrounding areas, filling cavities, administering anesthetics, and prescribing medication. Most importantly, dental providers educate patients about diets, flossing, using fluoride, and overall oral health.

“We work the hardest of any profession to put ourselves out of business because if everybody did what we asked them to do, we wouldn’t be as busy as we are,” said Air Force Col. Nancy Motyka, program director of the two-year Comprehensive Dentistry Residency at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Even so, many patients can be intimidated or nervous to go to a dental appointment.

In addition to oral medicine, dentists receive training in general medicine, so they often know what conditions in a patient’s mouth can reveal about overall health. For example, one of Motyka’s patients came in with white spots on the gums. Motyka suspected a yeast or Candida infection, and suggested the patient get his blood sugar level checked. Her suspicions were later confirmed through testing, and the patient’s physician prescribed medication for diabetes.

Motyka, who served 20 years as a civilian dentist before joining the Air Force, places the highest priority on the comfort of her patients. She stresses the importance of helping them understand what will be done and explaining why a procedure is necessary before beginning any work. As with Hauser, Motyka said that seeing the gratification on patients’ faces after alleviating pain or improving a smile is her reward.

“As a dentist,” said Hauser, “you can truly make a difference in a patient’s life.”

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Beginning May 1, 2017, United Concordia will assume responsibility for administering the TRICARE Dental Program, replacing the outgoing dental contractor, MetLife. With the new contract comes enhanced benefits and other changes. You can learn more at www.tricare.mil/tdp.

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