The Ethics of Charity Dental Work
We recently had the opportunity to answer the following question for a national dental journal: Do dentists have a moral duty to provide charity care?
Does anyone have a moral duty to provide charity? Maybe people don’t have an obligation to give charitably. But turn the question around. If someone has the means to give, shouldn’t he or she? We believe the answer is yes — especially when it comes to healthcare services. Helping those in need is central to the mission of health care providers.
We don’t mean they must donate money. While we do believe they should if they have the means, we are referring specifically to volunteering their time and talents.
Across the country, there are so many people in so many communities who have no access to quality dental care. In Atlanta, hundreds of thousands of people cannot afford a dentist. Yes, they have many other needs as well like affordable housing, food and clothes, transportation. And there are many worthwhile charities that offer support in those areas. But unlike an organization like Habitat for Humanity, for example, where volunteers don’t need to have a certain level of education to build a house, dentistry is specific. It can be provided only by a limited number of certain individuals in any community. So while volunteering may not be an obligation, it certainly is an opportunity to fulfill a certain need.
At the Ben Massell Dental Clinic in midtown Atlanta, we believe everyone deserves quality dental care regardless of ability to pay. And while that ideal might be universal, it’s the responsibility of the dental community and public policy to find viable or sustainable solutions. Many individuals contribute by doing pro-bono work in their offices; what we have done is to systemize that charitable effort to share the burden and, in doing so, assure the high quality of care we provide.
BMDC began more than 100 years ago in order to address the inequalities in society and to provide care to those who could not get it otherwise. Alpha Omega, the Jewish dental fraternity, had been looking for an avenue to provide charitable care and was excluded from most groups. So the members understood what injustice felt like. The clinic was one of the first nonsegregated programs in Atlanta.
The clinic wouldn’t be in business if not for the roughly 150 dentists who volunteer their time each month. And the more than 4,000 patients who come through our doors each year would be in much different situations.
Ben Massell’s legacy is built on getting people back on their feet, giving them back their dignity and helping them to improve their lives. For more than a century, we have been changing thousands of lives every year. We have evolved into a training center for students and residents, and we are fostering a commitment by this next generation to quality volunteer work. Public health is a critical piece of the overall education of the next generation of dental professionals.
The decision to volunteer or not is an individual one. What we have found overwhelmingly is a generosity and compassion from most dentists. Is there a moral obligation? We don’t know. Neither of us is that authority. But what we do know is that many dentists do believe there is. Many come to us looking for a way to give back to their community. That’s a good thing, because if they didn’t, where would be we be? And more important, where would our patients be?
The Ben Massell Dental Clinic is always in need of volunteer dentists. Learm more about volunteering: https://www.benmasselldentalclinic.org/dentists/volunteer-today