Dr. Andy Soderstrom: A Q & A with California Dental Association Foundation Humanitarian Award Winner

By Greg Biersack

Photos by Scott Allan

Burkhart is proud to serve Dr. Andy Soderstrom, a pediatric specialist in Modesto, CA. He is an active community member and a recipient of the California Dental Association Foundation Humanitarian Award. He believes strongly in the importance of dental association involvement and the incredible value of preventive care to oral and overall health. We recently had the opportunity to inquire about his background, his passions and his concerns for the future.

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Q: I see that you are the son and the grandson of dentists and wanted to know a little about when you knew dentistry was something you wanted to do. What was the calling? What did you learn from your dad and your grandfather while you were growing up that influences your practice and how you practice dentistry today?
A: Actually, for a long time, I really didn’t want to do what dad and grandpa did. I actually went to pharmacy school right out of college. The easiest way to get to my classes in the pharmacy school was to walk through the dental school so I was doing that every day.

The concept at the time was that all the hospitals would have satellite pharmacies on the wings of each floor and there would be a team that would include the doctor, the pharmacist and the nurses. Once managed care hit medicine, that put that concept on the block. Basically, that meant you were going to be working at CVS or Long’s or one of those kind of pharmacies. I just kind of decided that was not for me.

All those walks through the dental clinic kept all those memories open. That was when I made the decision to jump ship and switch to dentistry.

Both my dad and grandfather were very similar—both very simple, humble people who did a lot of things in the community. They were both very active and gave back to the community—which were things I noticed and really carried in the way I built my practice and my involvement in the community.

Q: How do you define success for yourself and your practice?
A: For me, success is more about my personal satisfaction. Were my patients happy? Were they getting a good service? That was my primary focus: just taking care of them. I like working with parents to get the outcome they can afford financially and what they want for their child. As a result of that, the other things come—the financial kind of things.Soderstrom-48

Q: You’ve been very involved with the CDA (California Dental Association) including serving as the president from 2010-2011. Tell me how your involvement started. What message would you have for young dentists about involvement in dental associations?
A: Part of that goes back to my grandfather. He was president of the Northern California Dental Association. He was always very active, had a lot of contacts and was very well-respected by all the dentists in town. The first person who got me involved was from Hughson, CA and was a year behind me in dental school, Dennis Hobby. He was involved in the local dental association and brought me into Stanislaus Dental Society’s leadership roles. That got me started on my dental political career and where it really all started.

I think more so now than ever with the changes that are occurring and will occur in dentistry, it’s important to be involved. There’s the old saying, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” With the whole change in reimbursement, I see us moving more to a medical management model rather than a drill and fill model.

If we want it to be what we think is the ideal system, we just have to be involved. Not only to try and protect the financial side, but the patients as well. The bureaucratic model does not take into consideration what’s really best for the patient. They’re just looking for the least expensive way to deal with the treatment of the disease.

I am encouraged seeing the new graduates. They do want to be involved. They do have their own set of rules on how they want to participate, but I’m a lot more optimistic about this generation and getting new members now.

Q: Congratulations on receiving the CDA Foundation Humanitarian Award. Could you share a little bit about CDA Cares? How did it develop and what is its mission? How many patients do you typically see per event? Do you hold this in different cities throughout the state all within the same year?
A: In 2004 at the ADA, I met with a group of dentists from Connecticut who were doing the Mission of Mercy. For about the next four years, two of the guys harped on me that we should be doing it in California. They’d had an event in Portland in 2009 and that was the first Mission of Mercy west of the Rockies. So I went up there with some other CDA volunteers and staff and scouted it. We were going down about 5 AM to get the clinic opened and ready for the patients and there are about 1,700 people in line, 29 degrees and misting. Most of them said they had been there since midnight. How the clinic came together and the outcomes that were accomplished over the next two days really confirmed to me that it was something we needed to do. I went back to the CDA and they agreed. We had our first event in March of 2012.

Typically, we see about 2,000 patients at each clinic. Our services rendered are in the $1-1.25 million per event and, if you multiply that by nine events we’ve had, we’re up to a total of $15 million.

We hold two events in the state each year, one in the spring and one in the fall. We’ve been trying to rotate between Northern and Southern California. We try to go to areas where we know there are some definite access problems and the Central Valley is one of those. We look for areas where there is the most need. It’s a little bit defined by the facility available. America Cares Foundation has a guidebook that helps guide the selection of the site.

Q: Can you share a little about the mission dental care that you’ve done?
A: That was actually with a Rotary Group and was probably my first adventure. It was in Honduras. Rotary partnered with a local medical clinic and got a dental

clinic in to it. We did spend part of day working with dental patients. For me, it was my first experience treating patients outside my office. I had gone to Cuba with the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry a few years before that, so I was clued in to how things were set up with more of a clinic feel. It definitely makes you think about how good things are around here. In Cuba, what was most impressive was their focus on prevention. If you have limited funds and resources, prevention is paramount because treatment is far more expensive for anything than to prevent the problems from developing. The kids would go every six or eight weeks and get their teeth checked, get a prophy and fluoride. We didn’t see a whole lot of rampant decay in the clinics. To me, it was a well-thought out plan to make do with what you had.Soderstrom-28

Q: What are the biggest challenges you see in the future of dental care? What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about going in to dentistry as their professional calling?
A: I have a hard time when people say dentistry is expensive. I get it, but when you compare it to medical expenses, it really isn’t when you look at it from the side that not all but a pretty large percentage of it is preventable. When you’re talking about people with cardiovascular problems or diabetic patients, I would say their oral health is really important to their disease process and having good oral health has an impact on the amount of medical care they need.

I think what holds my concern is the direction we are going in our reimbursement model and combining that with the amount of debt these students are coming out with now. I’m just not sure how financially viable dentistry is with that kind of debt load. As a profession itself, I think it’s great. The large group practices and corporate practices will continue to expand. So I think there’s a whole lot of uncertainty out there. In the next four or five years, I think a lot of these questions will be answered. I think I’ll be more optimistic at that point.

Q: What excites you most about what is happening in dentistry now?
A: Part of it is seeing the younger dentists coming out and being excited and being engaged. Again for me, it’s the realization that dental caries is a disease and can be managed in the medical model.

The most exciting thing and one that would keep practices alive and going is the need to have a huge sea change in the thought process of how reimbursements are done. Take the focus and the dollars away from the “drill and fill” side and put it on the prevention side. It’s both exciting and scary because medicine is a little bit ahead of us with all these new things going on. My biggest concern—and this is where membership and getting new members involved comes in—is that if dentists don’t get out there, be part of these discussions, get their opinions out there, and try to persuade the legislators and regulators that this is the way to do it, medicine is going to do it. They are already being reimbursed based on their outcomes. If they are seeing how periodontal disease is affecting A1C levels for diabetic patients and those patients aren’t getting in regularly to get their gum disease taken care of and under check to reverse that, then medicine will figure out a way to do that. It’s a great opportunity to put the “mouth back in the body,” connect the two again and get dentistry and medicine working collaboratively to not just improve oral health, but overall health.

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