January 21, 2020 —
Written by Vina Cristobal, University Health Partners of Hawaii
Featured photo by Brian Hutchinson Birch, Hawaiʻi Public Health Institute
“There are some professionals that spend their careers saving lives, and that’s very admirable. But it’s also equally important that professionals spend time improving the quality of life. I thought that dentistry would be a very useful skillset to improve the quality of life of people – emphasizing the quality of life over the quantity of life.”
That’s the goal of Dr. Gavin Uchida, DDS, MBA, the first dentist credentialed under University Health Partners (UHP) of Hawaii. Dr. Gavin is the newest Dental Sealant Program Pediatric Dentist at the Hawaii Keiki: Healthy & Ready to Learn Program, an initiative of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa School of Nursing and Dental Hygiene. Hawaii Keiki Program is also a partner of University Health Partners of Hawaii, expanding the faculty practice’s ties beyond the medical school, but to the UH Health Sciences as well.
Dr. Gavin is passionate about improving the quality of life for others. His fervor is reflected in the other numerous contributions he’s made in Hawaii and around the world.
Gavin Uchida headshot, courtesy of Studio3Fx.com.
By doing a simple Google search, one will find a long list of accolades attributed to Dr. Gavin’s name. He is an alumnus of St. Louis School, University of Washington, University of California at San Francisco, University of Texas at San Antonio and Duke University. He was a professor at the University of California at San Diego School of Medicine, and held a clinic faculty position at the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center. He currently serves as a pediatric dentist at Shriners Hospital for Children.
Dr. Gavin has also participated in several mission trips throughout his career, including medical/dental missions to Southeast Asia, Polynesia, the Caribbean Islands, Central America and rural neighborhoods in the continental U.S. It was on these trips that Dr Gavin realized the simplicity and vitality of life.
“Here in the United States, we really have an abundance of resources,” he said. “There are a lot of resources here that are not available in other places in the world. I think that it’s the compassionate thing to do, to take a little bit of energy and to share it with places that don’t have those resources. Interestingly, in doing this, I remind myself how little we need to be happy. It’s nice to get grounded by going overseas.”
In 2015, Dr. Gavin founded Blue Whale Children’s Dentistry of Hawaii in his hometown of Kaimuki. Uchida’s practice epitomizes his work and personal philosophy: to care for individual patients, not just in terms of their oral health, but also their mental, physical and emotional well-being. This goes for the patients’ families as well.
“Pediatric dentistry is fun,” Dr. Gavin said. “The children help keep me young. And it makes my day to day life more enjoyable than it otherwise would be.”
Unlike high-volume dental offices, Dr. Gavin and his team focus on individual patients one by one, so that the patients and their families have the staff’s undivided attention and care during their visits.
“Probably the most rewarding thing of my career is to see the positive impact that I can have on a single individual,” Dr. Gavin said. “I can see the direct positive impact on a single individual, and can name that person. It’s not just an abstract concept. As clinicians, we can see how we can improve a specific person’s situation.”
Related to working in pediatrics, Dr. Gavin says, “It definitely helps to have the right temperament to work with kids and their patients, which is something that filters out a lot of professionals from going into pediatrics or pediatric dentistry.”. “Working with children may be challenging at times, but parents may bring their own set of challenges. They may have their own dental issues, fears and anxieties.”
But he added that through trust and communication, the fear in these families decreases, and patients and families can become more open and trusting with their dental concerns.
Dr. Gavin also saw open communication as an important issue during his two-year term as Dental Director for the State of Hawaii Department of Health. From 2016 to 2018, Dr. Gavin played an instrumental role in carrying out a strategic plan, which dates back about 15 years, to refine oral health in Hawaii. The state is ranked among the worst in the nation in terms of dental health in children and adults, according to a 2019 DOH Dental Health Program Report.
His aim at the Department of Health was to accomplish as much as they could with as few resources as they had. As part of this plan, Dr. Gavin initiated ‘town hall’-style meetings in rural areas throughout the state to provide community members with an open platform to share their concerns about dental health.
“We just sat down face to face, and we talked,” he said. “It was a fantastic way for the state – and me – to learn about the community. To sit down face to face, hear the concerns and feel what the other person is feeling.”
The concerns raised at these meetings included the overconsumption of sugar, putting fluoride in the public water supply, provider availability in geographically isolated areas, and the reduction of healthcare-related expenses. He also mentioned that while a number of topics discussed at these meetings could be handled bureaucratically, other issues could and should be solved at the individual level. However, he sees these issues as “an opportunity to do good,” and bring solutions to the problems.
“Educating patients to choose healthy options, educating family members to provide healthy environments, trying to educate teachers and organizational leaders to have healthy environments, and government leaders — it’s the same message, but to different audiences. People that are working in individual roles may have their limited perspective – for example, a clinician or a government official. They know what they know, but they may or may not see the whole picture. I think I’m fortunate to simultaneously have roles in all these different positions. It gives me a more complete view of the whole topic of oral health in Hawaii.”
After departing from DOH, Dr. Gavin joined the administrative team at the Hawaii Dental Service (HDS) Foundation, which is the largest NGO provider of grants and community projects related to oral health improvement in Hawaii, Guam, and Saipan. His role at HDS takes advantage of his government, business, and clinical expertise, to ensure that funding for community projects brings meaningful impact and community benefit.
“Community health is not something that we should only turn to our governments to provide for us,” he said. “It is something that we can create within our community, starting at the individual level, and moving up through our local institutions, culture, and norms. We are all empowered.”
Looking forward to his new role as a pediatric dentist within Hawaii Keiki Program, Dr. Gavin will take on both an advisory and clinical role and work with dental hygienists in training as well as licensed dental hygienists.
He said, “I’m always happy to contribute in any capacity available. I’m sure my position is going to evolve because this position is still new. I have a feeling that a year from now, it might look a little different. Ideally, it’s during their training that future healthcare professionals will be exposed to different sections of healthcare. What we learn in early training is what we carry with us through our careers.”
“I’d like all healthcare professionals to see that their contributions go beyond their specific area of expertise,” he added. “Just because someone is trained as a dental hygienist doesn’t mean that they cannot also positively impact the physical health of patients related to diabetes or cholesterol or cardiovascular wellness or psychiatric wellness. Just because someone is a clinical psychologist doesn’t mean that they’re not going to somehow have impact on dietary choices or even the oral health of people. I think clinicians need to be experts in their silos, but they also need to have a perspective that goes beyond their silo.”
Though he wears many hats, his mission is consistent in each one: to make a positive impact on the world around him. He encourages others to actively seek moments where they can do the same.
“As long as a person spends their energy looking for opportunities to have a positive impact, and they also have learned the skills to create that desired impact, and they have some compassion and some empathy to fuel everything, then it doesn’t really matter if that person is a clinician or a businessman. They will find those opportunities to try and better the world,” he said. “ For anyone who wants to increase their role in society and increase their impact – all you have to do is spend your lifetime building your skills, looking for opportunities, and taking action. Look around for opportunities to help, and you’ll find them.”
About the Hawaii Keiki program and its Dental Sealant Program initiative:
Hawaii Keiki: Healthy and Ready to Learn is a partnership between UH Mānoa Nursing and the Hawaii Department of Education and sits at the intersection of education and health to support the DOE to achieve student, school, and system success.
The program is enhancing and building school-based health services that screen for treatable health conditions; provide referral to primary health care and patient centered medical home services; prevent and control communicable disease and other health problems; and provide emergency care for illness or injury.
The Hawaii Keiki – Hawaii Dental Service (HDS) Dental Sealant Program was developed in 2019 as a partnership between Hawaii Keiki: Healthy and Ready to Learn (HK) and the HDS Foundation. Dental Sealant Program staff collaborate with the Hawaii Department of Education (DOE) to identify high need Title I elementary schools, and work with school administrators to organize dental screening and sealant days.
The Dental Sealant Program is provided at no cost to families and is supported by funds provided by the HDS Foundation and UH Manoa School of Nursing and Dental Hygiene. Parents must provide written consent to participate in this no cost program. The Program is school-based with screening and sealant application provided at the school to minimize the loss of class time.