Dentist lobby day in Arizona usually falls on Valentine’s Day. Every year, Dr. Onika Patel and a handful of other dentists trek to the state capitol to press legislators on issues important to dentists.
One year, she argued against a tax on medical devices. Another, against dental therapists. Another, for access to dentistry and benefits for pregnant women. She’s testified before legislators.
In the five years since finishing dental school, she’s become a force to be reckoned with and a fierce advocate for the profession.
“I found things happening in dentistry interesting and it would affect me and if I wasn’t out there trying to make a difference and do something, who was going to do it? That’s why I like to be involved,” she said. “As a new dentist, it’s painful to be paying dues when you have loans but at the end of the day, I’m involved because that’s where I can single-handedly make change or if I don’t like something I can do something about it.”
Dr. Patel’s advocacy on behalf of the profession has led her to involvement with the American Dental Association’s Council on Ethics, Bylaws and Judicial Affairs. She also serves as an ADA alternate delegate and is president-elect of the Central Arizona Dental Society.
“That’s why the American Dental Association is so important. It’s one unified voice for all of us together, fighting for something with more manpower, more resources, to protect our profession and keep it what it is,” Dr. Patel said. “I never realized how much goes into protecting our profession and what we do, and to be known as professional and respectable. There are lots of people working behind the scenes to make sure that happens. It’s kind of moving to be a part of.”
When Dr. Patel isn’t fighting for dentists, she’s fighting for children and others to get access to much-needed dental care as a volunteer with both Mission of Mercy and Give Kids A Smile.
Treating children through Give Kids A Smile – hundreds as part of the events she’s volunteered for — has taken on special meaning since Dr. Patel had a child of her own.
“Anything from crowns, root canals, anything the child needs we’ll do it,” Dr. Patel said. “Until I was a mom — and of course you have a soft spot for kids — but after becoming a parent, providing treatment for children who need it or are in pain is really emotional and it’s so much more meaningful. You think about, what if this was my own child.”
The Mission of Mercy events are so popular and the need for dental care so great in Arizona that people begin lining up days beforehand, Dr. Patel said.
“It’s exhausting but it’s really fulfilling. Just to see the appreciation and gratefulness. It makes me realize, that’s why I chose dentistry,” Dr. Patel said. “I wanted to help people … It’s helping someone that may not have gotten the care otherwise.”
Dr. Patel is a recipient of the 2018 10 Under 10 award. Read more about the award at ADA.org/10under10.