A Mission Beyond Dentistry
R. Iván Lugo, CEO of the Hispanic Dental Association, is working to transform the way oral health professionals serve the Hispanic community.
After putting in decades of hard work in the oral health profession, R. Iván Lugo has built for himself an illustrious career.
From 1996 through 2006, he served as the Dental Director in the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health.
For more than 25 years, he served in various roles at Temple University both as an instructor and as a leader, including a stint as Associate Dean of Community Health and Institutional Relations at the university’s School of Dentistry.
For multinational corporation Procter & Gamble, he has contributed to technological initiatives to help transform the healthcare system. He has even had success as an academic entrepreneur, founding dental practice i.dentical and an innovation lab, both based in Philadelphia.
These accomplishments are merely a glimpse of the impact this Puerto Rican dentist has had on the world of oral health. Now, in his new role, Lugo has committed himself to the service of the people he represents: the U.S. Hispanic community.
In early 2017, Lugo became CEO of the Hispanic Dental Association (HDA), a national organization comprised of oral health professionals and students. The HDA is not only devoted to improving and promoting the oral health of the nation’s Hispanic community, but also advocating for increasing Hispanic representation in the oral health profession.
Since becoming CEO, Lugo has helped to refocus and reinforce the mission of the HDA, launched a successful health forum in New York City and incorporated his passion for innovation into the organization’s endeavors.
Lugo grew up in San Antonio, a small town in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. Back then, the town was the location of the Ramey Air Force Base, which is no longer in operation today. Lugo’s father worked for the federal government, and because of that, a young Lugo was able to attend school on the base.
This arrangement presented Lugo with what he described as an “overwhelming” amount of resources and educational opportunities, as well as the ability to study with people from around the globe, framing Lugo’s perception of the world as a place brimming with diverse cultures, viewpoints and experiences.
As a child, he was inspired to begin building a career in healthcare when he watched on television a surgeon performing an operation.
“I was just immersed in the delicate hands of a provider,” Lugo said. “From then on I knew what I wanted to do, and I pursued it throughout my life.”
Lugo spent one year studying at the University of Puerto Rico before transferring to Syracuse University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in biology. He went on to earn his doctorate of dentistry at the University of Connecticut and afterward completed his residency at Temple University.
Out of all of the healthcare professions he could have pursued, Lugo said he chose dentistry because the field creates an interesting intersection. It’s a science in which the practitioner must use his or her hands, eyes and brain to diagnose and to treat, actively working with materials to design both function and aesthetic in the mouth, an organ that plays a crucial role in the health of the entire body.
He also didn’t want to just “sit behind a desk and prescribe medications.”
“I wanted to be actively involved in creating something for another human being,” Lugo said. “And give them back the dignity of a smile.”
Helping Hispanics in the U.S. achieve better health has been a constant calling throughout Lugo’s career, and this purpose led him to become involved with the HDA while in dental school.
“I found a niche of people who were like me, who understood my community and wanted to do something about it,” Lugo said.
Research compiled by Pew Charitable Trusts in recent years reveals troubling trends about the oral health of Hispanics in the U.S. A 2009 study of people 21-years-old and younger found that 35 percent of Hispanic children had visited a dentist that year, a significant difference from the 50 percent of non-Hispanic white children who had done the same.
Studies conducted between 2011 and 2012 found that 36 percent of Hispanic adults and 19 percent of Hispanic children live with untreated tooth decay (compared to 22 percent of non-Hispanic white adults and 10 percent of non-Hispanic white children).
With the rest of the members of the HDA, Lugo is dedicated to pinpointing and addressing the causes of disconcerting statistics such as these.
Lugo explained that the HDA’s mission can be broken down into four categories: service, education, advocacy, and leadership (or S.E.A.L.).
Providing oral health service to the Hispanic community is paramount for the HDA, and a new initiative that Lugo is spearheading in Reading, Pennsylvania—a project he refers to as the “Dental Hospital”—exemplifies that the organization is finding innovative ways to serve Hispanics.
With about 90,000 residents, Reading is the fifth most populated city in Pennsylvania. It’s located about 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia. About 60 percent of the city’s population is Hispanic, according to 2010 Census estimates.
“Looking at the demographics of Reading, it fits very well with where we want to make an impact,” Lugo said, adding that the city is a fitting place for the HDA to set its “innovation portfolio in motion.”
The HDA has partnered with Reading-based group I-LEAD to begin establishing the Dental Hospital in a large building on Penn Street, a bustling location in the city’s downtown, this year The HDA’s academic partners in the endeavor include the University of Puerto Rico, Columbia University and Harcum College, Lugo said.
At the Dental Hospital, experts will develop innovative models, systems and practices to find ways to better serve communities, as well as disaster areas, Lugo said. The establishment will offer providers who are sensitive to Latino culture and able to speak Spanish.
The Dental Hosptial concept will also link “dentistry and medicine together,” connecting how the mouth affects the health of the entire body, Lugo said. He hopes this approach will set an example.
“The goal is to really transform healthcare and be able to start looking at the body holistically,” Lugo said. “I want to change things, and I want to demonstrate that change in Pennsylvania.”
While working with Procter & Gamble, Lugo was part of a 2011 project that surveyed how Hispanics in the U.S. assess their oral health. The study found that Hispanics had a lower standard for what they considered healthy teeth than the general population, Lugo said, and he indicated a particularly worrisome misconception: according to Lugo, about a third of the Hispanic community at the time believed that cavities could be brushed away.
The HDA not only works to correct misinformation such as this among member of the community, but also misinformation about the community among healthcare providers.
“Cultural sensitivity is extremely important because when you’re educating, you have to use relevant things that relate to the patient,” Lugo said.
Lugo said this sensitivity among practitioners must be applied in aspects of dental care such as dietary and nutritional counseling. If a Latino patient is accustomed to eating less healthy foods that are common in the Latino culture, then the practitioner is responsible for suggesting alternative foods that will make sense to the patient.
Another example of cultural awareness that Lugo discussed is that Latino families often come to appointments as a unit, so if a dentist is setting up a practice to serve the Latino community, that dentist should make their waiting room an appropriate size.
“I personally believe that respect comes when you understand and you can empathize with the culture and the individual,” Lugo said.
The HDA’s duty to educate exists in harmony with its responsibility to advocate. The organization has formed partnerships with universities to establish a quality pipeline of Hispanic oral health professionals, who will be able to champion the HDA’s initiatives for years to come.
Through the HDA Foundation, the organization also provides scholarships for young Hispanics looking to build careers in the oral health world. The group also advocates for the Hispanic community by educating lawmakers and speaking for the needs of Hispanics at the national level.
Furthering its mission, the HDA recently organized what Lugo hopes will become an annual event. In November, the group held the First Global Health and Technology Innovation Forum during a yearly trade show in New York City, bringing in “thought leaders from around the globe” to discuss the future of oral health.
“I’m extremely happy to say that it has been voted by the board to be done next year again,” Lugo said.
After the winds and rains of Hurricane Maria pummeled Puerto Rico in September, devastating much of the island and displacing many of its people, Lugo became certain of the need for an urgent conversation about infrastructures across the U.S.
It’s an issue that strikes a particular chord with Lugo, as his parents were forced to leave the island because of the hurricane. They still have yet to return home.
“One of the critical things we have learned from disasters that have happened in the U.S., and particularly in Puerto Rico now, is that when we design for strategies for delivering care — medical care and, in my particular case, dental care — we don’t design for the basic infrastructure needs that we already have and take for granted,” Lugo said.
These needs include electricity, water and, most importantly, communication, Lugo said.
With projects such as the Dental Hospital, Lugo aims to help develop systems that will enable medical care to continue when disasters such as Maria strike, but he also noted the mission requires a conversation between what he calls “the unusual suspects,” referring to medical practitioners, engineers, sustainability experts, entrepreneurs and other professionals vested in lessening the impact of catastrophic events.
With the increasing frequency of natural disasters like Hurricane Maria, Lugo said this conversation needs to happen now.
“This isn’t going to go away,” he said. “This wasn’t a one-time thing."