After four decades as an orthodontist, a Minnesota dentist is expanding his reach by helping organize free care for underserved and uninsured patients.
It was more than 50 years ago, but Stephen Litton, DDS, PhD, remembers it well. He was finishing high school and feeling lost; didn’t know what he wanted to do. So, when his best friend, who had always wanted to be a dentist, registered for college, Litton thought the strategy made sense.
“I decided to put down pre-dentistry as my major,” he says. “Turns out I ended up going to dental school, and my friend graduated in business.”
Life has a funny way of working out sometimes. And Litton wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
“I loved dental school,” he explains. “I loved graduate school. I loved my 40-plus years of practice. And now I’ve moved on to another phase of dentistry and it’s very, very rewarding for me.”
Litton says he was fortunate in dental school to secure summer research fellowships. Today, most dental schools are 12 months a year, but there was no summer school back in the day. So for two summers Litton worked in orthodontics, and one summer he worked in oral pathology. He was fascinated by both specialties, and it set the stage for a decision that impacted his entire career.
“I ended up picking orthodontics,” he says. “I liked working with my hands, and I liked the idea of being able to practice a bit.”
Along the way he picked up a PhD in anatomy, and taught the subject to medical and dental students for several years at the University of Minnesota. But he acknowledges that the doctoral designation hasn’t much affected his career.
“It may look good after my name,” he admits. “Not many dentists have a PhD.”
And not many survive in private orthodontic practice for more than 40 years. But truth be told, Litton actually had two different practices over the years—one on his own, and one with two other individuals. He says it gave him “the best of both worlds,” and found running his own practice to be a good learning experience.
“Aside from doing orthodontics, which is the part all orthodontists enjoy doing, the business part of dentistry is a whole separate issue,” Litton says. But I think I was relatively successful. I ended up retiring and selling my practice five years ago. And I’m still unemployed and not running out of money yet.”
But not running out of things to do.
Litton says that dentistry is the greatest profession around, and that he never felt like he was going to work. He was just going to the office. But six years ago he found himself asking, “Do I really have to go to the office today?” That’s when the light bulb went off.
“I thought I’d die sitting in a chair working on a patient,” he recalls. “I really did love orthodontics. But things change. I was much older, and I needed something else to do.”
That “something else” became serving on four different dental boards, the most time-consuming of which is that of the Minnesota Dental Foundation, of which he is the current president. He says it’s been a great challenge, and very rewarding knowing that they’re making a difference providing dental care for the underserved in Minnesota.
“There was a finite number of people who I saw while I was practicing,” Litton explains. “At this stage I am affecting thousands of patients every year and it’s not me personally doing the dentistry, but it’s like an orchestra I’m kind of orchestrating it.”
Litton also serves as fundraising lead for the Minnesota Mission of Mercy. Since 1994, the Mission of Mercy has been providing free healthcare, free dental care, and free prescription medications to the uninsured, underinsured, and individuals who fall through the cracks of the nation’s healthcare system. It functions in approximately 25 states, including Minnesota.
Each year the Minnesota chapter sets up a two-day temporary dental clinic with about 120 chairs, and volunteers see in the neighborhood of 1,000 people each day.
“We hope to do about $1 million worth of dentistry in the two days,” Litton says. “And it’s all free.”
It’s also long and arduous for the volunteers, about one-third of whom work in the dentistry field. But it’s also extremely rewarding.
“In Minnesota it costs about $200,000 to put on one of these clinics,” Litton explains. “We raise the money by writing grants in order to obtain donations.”
Litton says the introduction of technology has been the most positive change in dentistry during his 40-plus years of practice.
“Whether it’s computers for tracking the management of the office, or the computers used to generate restorations or figure out where you’re going to put an implant rather than figuring it out manually, technology has really made dentistry so much more efficient,” he says. “And in my estimation so much more precise.”
But there’s still much work to be done. Litton says that the advent of fluoride has had a huge impact on decay rates, but there are still many issues people can have besides dental decay. Periodontal problems are the most prominent.
“So just because you don’t get decay and you don’t have to brush your teeth doesn’t mean you won’t have dental problems,” he explains. “And I think that’s part of the education process of the dental office in educating our patients.”
Away from the dental boards and the time he spends aiding the underserved, Litton loves to travel—though he doubts he’ll ever get to visit all the places he’d like.
“I’m going to New Mexico in a couple of weeks,” he says. “That’s one of the three states left on my bucket list that I have not visited.”
The other two are Delaware and Oklahoma, but he’s confident he’ll check those off the list some time soon.
That will give him more time to spend with his four grandchildren.
“Being involved in their lives is still a lot of fun for me,” he says. “As well as just enjoying life.”