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Health Equity Hero: Dr. Alex Barrera Sets a New Standard for Inclusive Dentistry

When we first met Dr. Alex Barrera last summer, we knew he was a trailblazer.

In 2019, Barrera created the Houston Equality Dental Network (HEDN), a dentistry group organized specifically for LGBTQ+ dental professionals and patients, after experiencing firsthand discrimination as a gay dentist and working with patients who have faced similar challenges.

Since then, he has been an incredible resource for his community, sharing insight and information along with a blueprint for best practices in treating the LGBTQ+ community. He has also been a great resource for DentaQuest — don't miss Barrera's excellent guest blog post, Five Things Dentists Can Do to Help LGBTQ People Feel Open to Care, for his expertise on how providers and the oral health community can work toward a more inclusive care environment.

Beyond HEDN, Barrera practices at Legacy Community Health, a Federally Qualified Health Center that helps treat the underserved and uninsured population of Houston. He is also a certified yoga instructor and has taught free yoga classes to dentists in partnership with the American Dental Association.

In recognition of his dedication and the importance of his work, we are delighted to name Barrera a 2022 Health Equity Hero.

"Being chosen as a Health Equity Hero is an incredible honor,” Barrera said. “It reminds me that even though work in advocacy and social justice can be difficult, there are organizations like DentaQuest that continue to support people like me fighting to advance oral health equity."

Below, we share excerpts from a conversation in which Barrera discussed the unique oral health challenges experienced by LGBTQ+ patients, how this disproportionately impacts their overall health and how providers can better support their care.

Dr. Barrera leads by example, proving that together, we can improve the oral health system so it works better for everyone. And that’s what DentaQuest’s Health Equity Heroes is all about.

In what ways do LGBTQ+ people face inequality in oral healthcare? What keeps patients away from dental appointments?

The LGBTQ+ community is identified as a “health disparity population,” due primarily to lowered access to health care. Unfortunately, some of this comes down to LGBTQ+ patients avoiding medical treatment due to past discrimination and fear of stigma. When LGBTQ+ people belong to other marginalized groups, such as being a person of color or having a disability, it becomes even more difficult to find accessible, non-biased care.

Are LGBTQ+ people at greater risk for oral health issues? How does this connect with other areas of health?

LGBTQ+ patients tend to have a history of discrimination or fear when it comes to seeking out health care, and since dental care is such an intimate experience, many queer patients tend to delay oral health care until it’s too late. This leads to higher incidences of pain, dental emergencies and financial struggles.

LGBTQ+ individuals, specifically those of lower socioeconomic status, have higher incidences of alcohol, tobacco and drug use and are much more likely to experience mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, body dysmorphia and eating disorders — all of this leading to higher incidences of oral health problems.

Why did you and your associates start the HEDN? What has the network accomplished?

The purpose of our organization is to advance equality for queer dental professionals in their work and learning environments, while also fostering awareness and research in oral health disparities in this population.

HEDN has been able to provide free continuing education courses for dental professionals on topics unique to the LGBTQ+ community. Additionally, our platform has allowed us to be vocal and present on LGBTQ+ care to various dental schools and community organizations around the country. Our organization has given back to the local queer community by providing oral health information sessions to LGBTQ+ groups around Houston and provided free virtual dental consultations to help LGBTQ+ individuals gain access to dental care.

How can dentists be allies for one another, their patients and the community?

As health care and dentistry continue to make progress, the only way we can have true equality is through the allyship of our heterosexual colleagues and those in leadership positions. I encourage all dental professionals to take the time to question their own subconscious biases and to also include LGBTQ+ topics when seeking out continuing education and trainings for themselves and their staff members. It is only with continued awareness, education and celebration, that we can come together to ensure that the world is a safer and happier place for all.


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