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Giving veterans healthier smiles

Dentist helps expand annual volunteer event nationwide

May 21, 2018

By Kimber Solana

Photo of Dr. Irani with a patient
Smiles: Dr. Karin Irani (right) shakes a patient's hand during the 2017 Veterans Smile Day event. Last year, more than 600 dentists across the country participated in the event, which provides free dental care to military veterans around Veterans' Day in November.
Editor's note: This is the sixth in a series featuring graduates of the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership and how these dental leaders continue to affect their communities.

Los Angeles — Dr. Karin Irani has always wanted to work with military veterans.

"My father was a veteran in the Iranian Army," Dr. Irani said. "I know about the sacrifice they and their families make. We owe them a lot for our safety and security. So it's a no-brainer that this population needs to be served."

Today, Dr. Irani is among the main organizers of the annual Veterans Smile Day event, which involves hundreds of dentists throughout the country providing free dental care to military veterans around Veterans' Day in November.

Last year, more than 600 dentists participated — a long way from its humble beginning, which stemmed from Dr. Irani's time at the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership.

As part of the Institute, 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. 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.

As part of the Institute's 2009-10 class, Dr. Irani sought to create a nonprofit that would help veterans receive training as dental assistants.

However, the task became too daunting and she ultimately switched objectives.

"The paperwork was too much for me," she said. "But I knew I wanted to find something that I can do to help veterans."

'Run with it'

When it comes to dental care, many veterans simply fall through the cracks. According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, veterans have to meet certain eligibility factors to receive dental care, such as service-related dental disability or condition, or be a former prisoner of war. In addition, Dr. Irani said, some veterans who quality for dental benefits still don't receive the care they need.

Image of Diversity Series logoDr. Irani started working on Veterans Smile Day in 2013 after a friend and University of Southern California dental school classmate reached out to her. Dr. Deryck Pham, a Navy veteran, had opened his Mays Landing, New Jersey, dental office doors to veterans who needed dental care in 2012, treating about 30 patients.

"[Dr. Pham] ask me to take his idea and run with it," Dr. Irani said. "That's the great thing about the Institute, you become more connected with other dentists doing amazing work."

Dr. Irani said she first reached out to ADA and Institute staff to brainstorm how to get this small, local program to expand nationwide.

"I attended an institute alumni group meeting and that's where we came up with the Veterans Smile Day name," she said. "The second thing I needed to do was get supplies."

"[Institute staff] put me in touch with Henry Schein," she said. "Since then, they've sponsored us 100 percent every year."

Henry Schein donates about $50,000 worth of supplies annually, Dr. Irani said. These supplies, ranging from patient bibs to chair covers, are distributed among participating dentists. Over the last few years, Crest + Oral-B has also sponsored the event.

Reaching veterans

The most difficult step in the process, however, was outreach.

"Our resources are very limited," Dr. Irani said. The organizers mainly consist of three dentists: Drs. Irani, Pham and Bijan Anvar, of New York. "And there is no centralized contact list for veterans."

To reach veterans who needed dental care, Dr. Irani began contacting American Legion service organizations, colleges' and universities' veterans departments and other local veterans groups.

"Today, we're better at spreading the word and encouraging dentists to participate," she said, adding dentists participating are encourage to use the Veterans Smile Day event name to help with branding, allowing veterans to better recognize the program.

Dentists can also choose the day they want to treat veterans, as long as it's around Nov. 11 or Veterans Day. Dentists find the flexibility of being able to treat veterans in their own offices instead of driving for hours to a centralized location more convenient, Dr. Irani said.

"We're able to live our lives because veterans have sacrificed so much," she said. "The least that we can do as providers is help them improve their oral health."

Dentists interested in participating in Veterans Smile Day can contact Dr. Irani at ddsusc03@gmail.com.

For more information on the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership, which admits dentists each year with all expenses covered by the ADA, Henry Schein Cares and Crest + Oral-B, visit ADA.org/diversityinstitute.