At a gala this week, The WXN’s (Women’s Executive Network), Canada’s Most Powerful Women Top 100 will honour the top 100 women who are making a difference in our country; from lawyers, scientists and investors to consultants, entrepreneurs and activists.
Dr. Nirvani Umadat is a leader in the dental industry who leverages technology to improve health, with a focus on remote communities in Northern Canada, Southeast Asia, South America and Central America. Dr. Umadat is among twelve women being honoured in the Mercedes-Benz Emerging Leaders Awards category. The category recognizes women between the ages of thirty and forty who have been targeted for successive leadership positions within their organizations and have a proven passion for learning and innovation.
SDTC: Can you give us a bit of background on your work and how you came to be interested in dental health in remote communities?
NU: Over a decade ago, while I was still a dental student, I took a trip as a dental volunteer to Guatemala. This trip changed my perspective on life and my impact on others. We worked in rural, remote villages in the mountain regions of Guatemala. In many cases, our patients had never seen a dentist or had dental care. With a team, I have continued to travel to some of the most remote parts of the world to provide dentistry over the last decade.
This early experience shaped my curiosity about low-access areas here in Canada. Many rural, northern or reservation communities have low levels of access to dental and medical care. Because of this, the presentation of some patient conditions can be advanced. This realization led me to work in such communities in Western Canada.
How much of an impact does dental care have on those living in remote communities?
The impact of dental care in remote communities can be transformational. In communities that have low or limited access to dental care, patients may have advanced states of dental or oral disease. Nutritional intake, speech, facial muscle tone and self-confidence are just some of the aspects of a person’s well-being that can be affected.
By providing care to people in remote communities, we are turning the tides of dental care in these areas to preventative rather than restorative (or treatment-centred). There is also a great amount of educational value from having an oral health presence in a community.
What are some technologies you are utilizing to improve dental care in these places?
Radiographs (i.e., x-rays), extensive charting and dental materials (e.g., composite, porcelain and metals) and custom-made prosthodontics (e.g., crowns) are some of the technologies used for dental treatment in these areas. Depending on the clinic, radiographs and charts may be electronic or analog.
I have heard of clinics also integrating video conferencing in to their clinics as a way of communicating with dental health providers in other parts of the province.
What is the biggest challenge you face in this work?
Providing adequate dental health and nutritional education is a challenge in remote regions as much as it is in urban areas. Our dental health truly impacts the health of our bodies overall. Our mouths are the access point for all the ingested nutrients we receive. Awareness about simple, yet important dental health habits, such as brushing, flossing and regular dental visits, as well as the quality of the food being consumed make a big impact on overall health.
As an example, conditions like baby bottle caries (cavities) and early childhood caries are preventable, yet highly impacted by oral health habits and nutrition. Dental disease is much less related to genetics or a relative “having bad teeth” than it is to dental hygiene practices and nutrition.
Continuity of care can also be a challenge when providing dental treatment to remote communities. There are times in the year where a dental provider may not be present. In these cases, it is imperative to plan accordingly to make sure follow up care can be achieved in another community nearby with a provider. The treatment planning and treatment must also be executed in a way that optimizes the best care for each patient.
Are there any moments that stand out to you since you started helping these communities?
I am grateful to have a collection of memories from my work all over the world; however, one of my most powerful memories is from my early career while working at a dental clinic on the Haida Gwaii Islands in Canada. It was the last of several appointments for a patient I had been seeing over a couple of months. I delivered her partial denture and handed her a mirror. When she looked in the mirror, tears rolled down her face and she began to smile. She held my hand and told me she was grateful she could smile. I think I will always remember her visit. I would like to include the caveat that any treatment, including dentures, must be recommended on an individual basis. In this case, it changed her life.
Why were you drawn to this work in particular? Is there a personal connection?
I was initially drawn to dentistry for practical reasons. As an unsure seventeen year old entering university, it seemed to combine my strengths and my interests. The components of scientific, evidence-based healthcare combined with aesthetics and artistry were appealing. I am grateful to an early mentor of mine who allowed me to come to his dental practice early in my university career to observe him and see if the profession was right for me.
As I got the opportunity to work in community clinics and later travel to different parts of the world, I felt my purpose was to improve healthcare globally. A major part of this is providing care where there may be none or little. I have come to realize a lack of access to care is something affecting people everywhere. My work here in Canada, Asia, South America and Central America has allowed me to see the similarities between people irrespective of geography. We all want health for ourselves, our families and our communities. My intention to be part of this greater vision for global health drives my work.
What are some practical ways we can help you with this work?
I think public education is important. We are bombarded by images of perfectly aligned white teeth. Though aesthetic, these images can skew the perception of dentistry as a cosmetic indulgence rather than a necessity for optimal health. I believe the message that dental health has an impact on your overall health is an important one. We all need to be vigilant about how we take care of our mouths and the nutrients we put in them.
I also believe more funding for dental public health research will help us understand not only our mouths better but also the impact our oral microbial community has on our microbiome as a whole. There is still a lot of research to be done, but the possibilities are exciting!