Street Dentists of India: A Dying Breed?

Street Dentists of India

The next time you find yourself complaining about your dentist, remember how lucky you are to be able to afford professional dental care. Many people around the world can’t, and in India, that manifests itself in the proliferation of “street dentists.” Along the streets of both major cities and small villages, beside outdoor vendors selling food, jewelry, medicines and even haircuts are dentists offering inexpensive oral care — with questionable qualifications and sanitary standards — to the poorest members of the population.

How inexpensive, you ask? Well, a procedure that could cost around $100 at a licensed dentist in India reportedly could be had for less than $1.50 at a street dentist. In a country where the average annual income is only around $1,200, it’s easy to see the appeal of such a cheap dental alternative.

Street dentists have been a mainstay in India for decades, but their numbers have dwindled significantly over the past few years — down to, by some estimates, fewer than 1,000. The decline is due largely to a push to boost the dental industry nationwide in order to draw in foreign patients (so-called “dental tourists”) looking to pay less for certain medical procedures than they would in their home countries. Because of this focus, the number of Indian dentists with degrees has surged to more than 100,000, while law enforcement has cracked down on unlicensed dental practitioners who are an embarrassment to a nation striving for dental legitimacy.

Additionally, increased awareness of the dangers of spreading AIDS/HIV — the rate of HIV infection has declined by more than 50% in India over the past decade — hasn’t helped the standing of street dentists, who aren’t held to standards of hygiene and sanitation. Still, with a population of more than 1.2 billion, the number of legitimate dentists per person is small, leaving plenty of room for amateurs to peddle their services.

Before you start thinking how backwards India is for having street dentists, though, consider cases in the US like that of “mobile dentist” Eliver Kestler and the hundreds, if not thousands, of arrests made every year for practicing dentistry without a license — often in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. After all, just because they’re not physically located on the street doesn’t make their service any more professional or competent.

(Sources: The New York Times, Wikipedia, The Financial Times)