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Dental Care in Guatemala: An interview with Dr. Steve Humbert

Dr. Steve Humbert has made 62 volunteer trips to Guatemala to provide dental care for families through Common Hope’s Dental Team program. He considers Guatemala his second home and during his visits, he’s made friends with a lot of the families he serves. Dr. Steve says that his focus is always providing dental care but he especially enjoys reconnecting with families.  

Over his tenure, Dr. Steve has acquired a great understanding of the state of dental care in Guatemala. He sat down with us to answer a few questions and provided a deeper insight into the work he does in Guatemala. 

Q: Do you find that many patients don’t have an understanding of good oral health? If so, what additional advice/words of encouragement do you give to patients so that they can practice oral hygiene at home and prevent diseases? 

A: Whether it’s me as the dentist or the hygienist we always try to give families oral hygiene instructions along with a toothbrush toothpaste etc., but unless those tools are used and applied into a regular routine it does little good. Unfortunately, for many families oral hygiene isn’t at the top of their priority list; they may be concerned about where their next meal is coming from, so their oral hygiene practices are not going to be as good as they should be. 

In the United States, most communities have fluoride in water to help maintain dental health. In Guatemala, there aren’t fluoridation programs. A lot of the kids are exposed to questionable water quality, so what many of them call “agua” or water is carbonated sugary drinks like coke. They sip it in substitute of water due to lack of access to clean water and end up bathing their teeth in sugary substances that will lead to further problems. If kids are calling pop water, do not have fluoridation, and are not going to the dentist for regular treatments —they’re going to have problems.  

Q: What type of dental work do you commonly perform on patients in Guatemala? 

A: It depends on where we are. When I first visited San Rafael el Arado (a very rural community) it was mostly extractions. If a patient was experiencing pain and it was questionable whether we could save the tooth or not, and if there was not going to be immediate follow-up care, it was better to take that tooth out. In the early years of visiting Guatemala, extractions in San Rafael were probably 80-90 percent of the work done, while 10 percent of it was preventative and restorative care. In Antigua, that percentage was better––more restorative work was done than extractions.

When families are able to receive continued care there is a significant improvement in dental health. When I know that I can come back and treat patients more often, work moves to be restorative and preventative rather than extractions because of continued care. Covid created a backlog of patients that needed to be seen and taken care of. If families aren’t seen by Common Hope’s Dental team, they either have to put up with pain and discomfort or go to public hospitals to seek treatment–– but that costs money and sometimes families don’t have that money to spend. 

Q: Around how many patients are you able to see during your trips? 

From left to right: Dr. Lynn, Dr. Steve and Dr. Nancy.

A: Generally, we see 20-25 patients a day between three dentists. Usually, we’re doing preventative care, oral surgery, or restorative work.  

Q: Is your team the only option for some families to gain access to dental care? 

A: We all have “access” to dental care except the cost is sometimes what prohibits us from getting it. Even in Minnesota or in the United States in general there is a fair percentage of the population that doesn’t regularly visit the dentist. Now, you compound that in Guatemala where more people live below the poverty line and can’t afford to take their money and spend it on oral health. So yes, sometimes we are a families only access to dental care because Common Hope provides that service for little-to-no-cost to patients. 

Dr. Steve already has his next trip in Guatemala planned out for the end of February, which will make it his 63rd Dental Team trip! (We are definitely keeping count!)  

“I wouldn’t visit Guatemala if I didn’t like it! That’s the issue––once you go the bug hits you and it especially hits you if you sponsor children,” states Dr. Steve. He currently sponsors three students but in total, he’s sponsored 10 students through Common Hope. He says his sponsored students make it hard for him not to go back. 

Thank you, Dr. Steve for volunteering your time, skills, resources, and care to serve patients in Guatemala! Because of you families and students have a reason to smile! 


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