Editor’s note: It will be a year in October since the passing of Dr. Ronald King, a noted holistic dentist in the Twin Cities. His former dental hygienist, Bette Jo Arnett, has just released a book, Wholeistic Dentistry: Balancing Conventional Dental Care with Ancient Wisdom, which looks at conventional dentistry and holistic dentistry in the United States. It is dedicated to Dr. King, her employer for 17 years. This is an excerpt from her book relating what she believes is preventing the integration of holistic concepts into conventional dentistry.
I see the prevention of integration of holistic concepts into dentistry to be a result of the historical customs of the American Dental Association (ADA) and the shaping of individual dentists to do as they must in order to keep their licenses and make their livings.
It is easier to go along with the system than oppose it with other observations and beliefs. For if dentists explore possibilities contrary to ADA expectations and what they learn makes sense, they would be compelled to make decisions to take action and integrate these changes into their practices. But it is easier to stay in a familiar place than move into the unfamiliar.
For 150 years, the ADA has denied that amalgams, silver fillings containing mercury, are harmful. The reason, I believe, is multifaceted:
- Economics – To admit that amalgams have harmed patients might lead to the financial ruin of the member dentists and to their authority. Patients might feel victimized by the power of the institution and may demand reparations. Dentists may be accused of being greedy and closed-minded.
- Ethics – Dentists would have to admit they violated their ethical code to do no harm. It is easier to stay in the safety zone of conventional practice than to risk disturbing one’s conscience.
- Psychology – To admit harm would mean that dentists would need to change their entire belief system, revising and reestablishing relationships with colleagues, staff and patients.
In addition to the dental amalgam controversy, other controversial topics, such as root canal therapy, cavitations, oral galvanism, bridges and fluoride, might compound the outcry by the public. I believe many dental professionals are aware of the possibility of harm to the patient, but don’t know how to get out of the predicament. It is easier to see the cases of harmed patients as only a few than to admit it may be a bigger problem.
Adding to the dilemma is the history of how anti-amalgam dentists have come under scrutiny by the ADA and state boards since 1990. “60 Minutes” reporter Morley Safer interviewed a number of patients whose health improved when their mercury fillings were removed. He also reported the case of a New York dentist, Joel Berger, who lost his license for his anti-mercury views. Hal Huggins, author of It’s All in Your Head, lost his license to practice dentistry in 1996 in Colorado. Gary Jacobsen, a Minnesota dentist, gave up his license after repeated costly investigations into his manner of practicing. It became clear to licensed dentists throughout the country that they must be careful discussing their positions on mercury.
While there is no gag order on discussing the amalgam filling controversy, the position statement from the ADA is that dentists can discuss it if the patient asks about amalgam harm and removal of fillings. When the patient asks about the dangers of amalgam fillings, more than likely the response from the dentist will be a confirmation of the ADA position on dental amalgam. After all, the dentist is under the jurisdiction of the state board, which in turn abides by the ADA philosophy.
My view is that the code of ethics to do no harm means to do no harm to any individual. If there is even the slightest possibility that amalgam may harm even a few people, the situation warrants investigation and the further prevention of harm for all dental patients. Ignorance of any viable alternative philosophy and mere options are no excuses for shirking the responsibility the dental professional has to the American public. The dental profession is, however, made up of intellectuals who rely on responding in the same manner as they have for 150 years. Their peers confirm that their philosophy is valid. They resort to justifying their position by quoting the science they have judged correct, and discount the other studies that conclude that amalgam causes harm as anecdotal or somehow faulty.