Oakland, Calif. — Dr. Daniel Nam was looking for a different way to increase access to dental care, especially for those who are uninsured or underserved, in the Bay Area when he received an email from an Alameda Dental Society colleague, Dr. Sharine Thenard.
“She said, ‘I already wrote you a letter of recommendation,’” said Dr. Nam, who practices in Oakland and served as director of the Berkeley Free Clinic’s dental clinic. “You need to apply for this right now.”
Dr. Nam did, becoming one of 12 members of the 2012-13 class of the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership, a program designed to enhance the leadership skills of dentists who belong to racial, ethnic and/or gender backgrounds that have been traditionally underrepresented in leadership roles within the profession and their communities.
About four years later, on July 14, Dr. Nam welcomed the first dental patient to his new nonprofit organization, Just Health 510.
“There’s a paper trail that started from my participation at the Institute to what I’m doing today,” he said.
A 2002 graduate of the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry, Dr. Nam’s passion for serving the underserved began during a 2001 volunteer trip with Loma Linda University to provide dental services in Fiji.
“That changed my life while I was in dental school,” he said. Dr. Nam remembers one particular case where a young girl came in with a broken tooth that caused an abscess on her face.
“Her mother was crying because her daughter was in pain and was being made fun of,” said Dr. Nam, who removed the girl’s broken tooth.
“When I saw them again, the girl was smiling,” he said. “The mother was still crying, but this time she had tears of joy. After that moment, I was committed.”
After dental school, Dr. Nam served as director of dental services at the Berkeley Free Clinic, providing free health care services to the homeless and low-income families.
As part of the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership, participants are tasked with developing and executing a personal leadership project that addresses an issue or challenge in his or her community, organization or the profession.
For his Institute project, Dr. Nam chose to expand the dental clinic of the Berkeley Free Clinic. However, he was running into too many hurdles.
“We tried very hard to grow from the existing organization, but within a few months it became clear to us working on the project that growing from within was not an option,” he said.
“It was while I was at the Institute that I started thinking about spinning off and creating a new nonprofit,” he said.
Institute participants receive help from ADA staff and work with leading educators from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.
Dr. Nam remembers a lecture from the late J. Keith Murnighan, the Harold H. Hines Jr. Distinguished Professor of Risk Management at Kellogg who died in 2016.
“He challenged us to look to the end of our goal and project,” Dr. Nam said. “Then he told us to look at the penultimate step before we finish, then to the step before that, then right before that until we reach where we were currently at.”
“That was very powerful. It was a way of thinking differently. Achieving that goal didn’t seem so daunting anymore.”
Dr. Nam assembled a board of directors to create Just Health 510. They applied to become a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, raised funds and found a dental clinic location in Oakland.
Unlike the student-run Berkeley Free Clinic, Just Health 510 won’t be limited to after-work hours and weekends. Another difference is that Just Health 510 is willing to bill Denti-Cal — California’s Medicaid program — and, in rare occasions, see patients with insurance.
Dr. Nam said Just Health 510 is trying to emulate the Brighter Way Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, which created a viable model by having consistent donors, and billing Medicaid and private pay when appropriate.
Dr. Nam said he wants Just Health 510 to be sustainable and have the ability to grow.
Currently, the clinic will only be open one day a week as they continue to recruit volunteer dentists and raise funds. The clinic has four dentists, two dental students, one physician and one paid staff member. It provides dental examinations and check-ups, dental cleanings, extractions, fillings (plastic, composite/metal, amalgam), crowns (partial and full dentures) and X-ray services. Future services include medical and optometry, job training and placement and debt relief for early professionals.
“Eventually, the goal is to have dozens if not hundreds of dentists who volunteer, whether one day a week or whatever their comfort level,” he said. “We have the facility but we need to grow at an appropriate rate.”
Down the line, he hopes others can replicate his Just Health 510 model in other cities and replace the “510” — the area code of the Berkeley/Oakland area — with their respective area code.
“What I learned in more than 10 years of working in this setting is that people, myself included, tend to stay in their comfort zones, whether it be race, religion, or social group. Dr. Nam said. “It’s only in the context of serving others do we put aside our differences and work together. We can do it because we have the skill set and the heart. I challenge my colleagues to give it a try.”
For more information on Just Health 510 and to volunteer or donate, visit justhealth510.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership, which now admits 16 dentists each year with all expenses covered by the ADA, Henry Schein Cares and Crest + Oral-B, visit ADA.org/diversityinstitute.