Dentist On Display: Omar Abuzaineh, D13
Omar Abuzaineh, D13, can easily commute 500 miles a week. From his home in Flagstaff, AZ, he drives east 50 miles to reach the clinic at Winslow Indian Health Care Center (WIHCC). Some days, he reports to Winslow’s two satellite campuses in Leupp, AZ (40 minutes from Flagstaff), and in Dilkon, AZ (40 minutes from Winslow). There is also a mobile clinic; on those days he wakes up at five am to head to different schools or Headstart programs to practice pediatric dentistry. Sometimes he carpools with another dentist. Otherwise, he just drives.
“A big part of the job is driving in the morning and driving in the evening,” Abuzaineh said. However, he cites the beauty of his surroundings as a positive factor. “I like the area and its openness,” he said. “It’s starting to feel like home to me.”
Externship & Post Graduation Decisions
It’s been more than two years since Abuzaineh began working as a staff dentist at WIHCC. He has been involved with Winslow to some degree since 2012 when he chose the site to complete his five-week externship.
“One part [of choosing the externship] was wanting to head out of the East Coast,” he said “I had the ability to group up with friends [and] I had heard positive reviews. I wanted to do a variety of treatment and have autonomy. I [also] wanted to visit an area I was not too familiar with beforehand.”
WIHCC is a community health center serving the Native American population at no cost. While a vast majority of the patient population is Navajo or part Navajo, there are patients from other tribes as well, including the Apache and Hopi tribes. Initially, Abuzaineh was planning to complete the externship, graduate, and pursue private practice, eventually owning his own business. However, after seeing how WIHCC operated, he began to think differently about his future plans.
“Arizona was completely foreign to me [but] I immediately felt comfortable,” he said. Abuzaineh was impressed by the dental assistants at the clinic, as well as the clinic directors’ high standards for quality care.
“The picture in my mind of a community health center was a little different. I didn’t expect private practice type dentistry,” he said. Abuzaineh explained that WIHCC is a comprehensive center and does a variety of procedures including implants and orthodontics.
Abuzaineh returned to Tufts after his externship, and graduated the following May. He was still considering working in private practice in his home state of California. But after learning about an opening in Winslow’s Advanced Education in General Dentistry (AEGD) program, he changed his plans. He completed the yearlong program, and was then hired as a staff dentist.
As Abuzaineh describes it, he believes that he’s found his niche. “I can’t see myself anywhere else right now,” he said. As a staff dentist, he has the opportunity to tackle access to care issues and provide care for an underserved community, while being able to assist dental students on externship and postgraduate residents.
Dentistry and the Navajo Nation
As a staff dentist, Abuzaineh sees patients in all three of WIHCC’s clinics. Winslow’s main
dental clinic is adjacent to a medical center, where patients needing emergency dentistry treatments are typically seen. The clinics in Leupp and Dilkon are both located on the Navajo Reservation in more remote areas. Abuzaineh, who visits all of the clinics based on a schedule, said that there are a variety of needs at each of the clinics.
“Each clinic does see patients that have successful oral health,” he said. However, he explained, the people who live in Winslow have a better ability to seek care, while access to care for residents in Dilkon and Leupp is more difficult as the towns are more spread out.
In order to practice dentistry effectively at WIHCC, Abuzaineh met with human resources employees and patient advocates to learn about Navajo culture and Navajo history. He also seeks guidance from the dental assistants on staff, who are all either Navajo or part Navajo, to further understand customs.
“It’s very important to realize when coming out here that the Navajo people are very community-oriented. [When dealing with issues, it] usually isn’t held in the individual, but brought up and worked on in the community.”
Cultural norms can affect the introduction of new techniques or materials to the community, and Winslow’s staff need to be proactive in providing education. For example, the center is currently considering using silver diamine fluoride therapy to reduce early childhood caries. The silver treatment makes the lesions darker so before the clinic makes this change, staff members will need to discuss the treatment in the community’s chapter houses to educate the population.
“We have to get the information out to the public,” he said. “Everything we do gets relayed in those gatherings. The news gets carried around to family and friends.”
A community-based approach is also to ensure that the entire community has access to oral healthcare. After a pipe broke and flooded the clinic in Leupp in September, the Winslow clinic extended its hours to assist displaced patients. “Instead of 8-5 pm, it’s now 8-8 pm,” Abuzaineh said, mentioning that the mobile van may also be used as an additional resource to accommodate patients who normally attend the Leupp clinic.
Working with Dental Students and Residents
In addition to seeing patients, Abuzaineh has the opportunity to work with externs and residents, including those from Tufts. He is an adjunct faculty member at Arizona School of Dentistry and Oral Health and Lutheran Medical Center, where he assists with clinical based learning. In addition to checking their work and assisting when needed, he serves as a clinical mentor and educates externs and residents on topics such as patient care and professionalism. Currently, there are four Tufts students completing their externship, though the number fluctuates depending on the month. University of North Carolina and Arizona School of Dentistry and Oral Health also send externs, and there are seven residents completing their AEGD. Abuzaineh values these opportunities to pay it forward to dental students and residents. “Being able to witness it, it makes me excited to make the drive and see their successes in the clinic,” he said.
Currently, Abuzaineh sees himself remaining in Winslow for the near future. “I’ve dabbled with the thought of specializing,” he said. “But being a general dentist has been great for me.” The upcoming growth of Winslow Indian Health Care Center is an additional motivation to stay at the center.
“[Right now we have a] five chair clinic in Winslow. It’s way too small for the amount of patients we’re trying to see. We’re breaking ground for a 15 chair clinic. It’s going to be state of the art. When it rolls out, I definitely want to be a part of it.”
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