Good Samaritans

Local dentists have banded together to help Hawai‘i’s underserved communities achieve better oral health.
photo: Rae Huo

“When it comes to dentistry, just writing a check isn’t enough,” says Dr. Russell Masunaga, co-founder of Hawai‘i Dental Association’s Dental Samaritans. “Somebody’s got to go out and do the work.” After becoming aware of the poor dental health in some of Hawai‘i’s communities, Masunaga, a cosmetic, laser and general dentist, decided to do something about it.

It’s not that Hawai‘i lacks dentists. “You can open any phone book and realize we have a lot of dentists here,” says Masunaga. With more than 1,000 dentists in a state of about 1 million people, Hawai‘i has well over the recommended one-dentist-per-2,000-patients ratio set by the American Dental Association.

So what’s the issue? Geographic maldistribution. Many of Hawai‘i’s rural and underserved communities lack access to dental care and education. “People find challenges in affording dentistry, finding a dentist that accepts Medicaid or just finding a dentist in their area,” Masunaga says. In 2001, Masunaga, along with fellow dentist George Wessberg, established the Dental Samaritans to create a clearinghouse of dental expertise. “[My colleagues] always say, ‘I’d like to help, but how?’ Give us a call, and we’ll tell you where to go,” he says.

The Dental Samaritans have their work cut out for them in Hawai‘i, where we have one of the highest rates of childhood cavities in the nation, stemming from neglect, poor education and no fluoridation in the water. The organization’s big dental health push happens this month in the form of its “Give Kids a Smile” campaign. As part of a nationwide effort, several of the organization’s volunteer dentists and hygienists provide comprehensive exams, hand out supplies and educate Hawai‘i’s children on proper dental care.

“It’s early detection, intervention and prevention,” Masunaga says. “If we catch problems early, we can teach [patients] to prevent [major dental problems] in the future.” Many Hawai‘i residents have dentists, but let years go by without visits. The organization provides a “firm hand and a specific referral,” says Kim Koga, Dental Samaritans’ trustee and coordinator, to ensure patients receive the dental care they need.

Want to become a Dental Samaritan?
Dentists should call Kim Koga at 848-8880 or e-mail her at

Last February, the program served more than 500 patients. With an expansion to Kaua‘i planned for this year, Masunaga anticipates more than 800 children will attend the screenings. “We’re taking it island by island,” says Koga, with a goal of serving Maui and the Big Island by 2008.

In 2005, the Samaritans expanded the program to also “Give Kupuna a Smile.” Every February and September, in partnership with Hawai‘i Meals on Wheels, volunteer dentists accompany Hawai‘i Meals on Wheels vans to homebound elderly clients. The screenings detect any dental problems and also provide clients with dental supplies and denture care products.

In addition to screenings, the Dental Samaritans also raise funds to support other dental health programs. For instance, the group helped fund a shipment of dental supplies to local dentists stationed in Iraq. They also raised funds to support dental assistant programs at Maui Community College and Kapi‘olani Community College. This past year, volunteer dentists helped the attorney general’s Missing Child Center create dental records for keiki identification kits.

Masunaga’s bottom line: “I tell my colleagues, ‘I need more than a check. I need you to show up. I need your hands. I need your eyes. I need your skills.’” With more than 200 volunteer dentists and donors, the Dental Samaritans are well on their way to reaching Hawai‘i’s underserved communities.

For more information on charities in Hawai‘i, contact the Hawai‘i Community Foundation, a statewide grant-making organization supported by generous individuals, families and businesses to benefit Hawai‘i’s people. Visit the site at