For the College of Dentistry at UT Health Science Center, you could call 2015 “the year of the dental clinics, and 2016 “the year of statewide reach.”
Last year, the college opened the doors of two dental clinics to serve the working poor in communities at either end of the state – Union City in western Tennessee and Bristol at the far eastern edge of the state. This year, the college is making its presence felt statewide by continuing to grow its clinical efforts and community outreach.
The clinics, which are staffed by fourth-year dental students under supervision of faculty, represent a major step in the evolution of the College of Dentistry, which is the oldest dental college in the South. They also reflect the overall growth strategy for UTHSC to be a statewide presence through campuses and locations across Tennessee.
“The governor has asked us to be the state’s dental school,” said Timothy L. Hottel, DDS, MS, MBA, dean of the College of Dentistry. “In other words, to go beyond Memphis and reach across the state.”
Ribbon cuttings at the Bristol clinic in mid-September and the Union City clinic in November were milestones in this effort. And plans are in the works for the college to further expand its footprint with more clinics and programs in Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga, Dr. Hottel said.
This statewide reach fulfills the mission of UTHSC to care for the health of the citizens of Tennessee, and aids recruitment efforts to attract students from Middle and East Tennessee.
“It also allows our students to see different populations that they would not see here in Memphis, which gives them better training for what they are about to do when they graduate,” Dr. Hottel said.
That’s a benefit that definitely registered with fourth-year dental student Chad Slaven, who is from Bristol and did a rotation in the clinic there. The Bristol clinic is located in the Healing Hands Health Center. A generous donation from Nashville-based Delta Dental of Tennessee through its Smile180 Foundation funded the renovations and equipment for the dental clinic at the center.
“This is my home, and these are my people,” Slaven wrote in an email to UTHSC administrators after his time there. “The experiences I have had in the Healing Hands Clinic in Bristol have been nothing short of amazing. My classmates and I have been shown kindness from staff and patients, alike. We have heard stories from patients of gratitude, and we have learned clinical skills and compassion along the way.”
Music to the ears of Delta Dental Chief Executive Officer Philip Wenk, DDS, who said his company is committed to improving oral health across Tennessee, helping equip the state’s children’s hospitals for dental treatment, and supporting education for the next generation of dental professionals in the state. To that end, Delta Dental has financed dental equipment for children’s hospitals, supported and improved 20 clinics across the state that provide services for the working poor, and is the largest single supporter of the UTHSC College of Dentistry and the School of Dentistry at Meharry Medical College.
Delta Dental has contributed more than $13 million for capital improvements and scholarships to UTHSC through corporate donations and its philanthropic arm, the Smile180 Foundation. This includes roughly $7 million in seed money toward construction of a second Dentistry Building on campus, a project that was included in Gov. Bill Haslam’s 2016 budget proposal.
“As we’ve become more successful, one of the things we chose to do was to get more engaged with providing better oral health to the people of the state of Tennessee,” said Dr. Wenk, who was recently named an Outstanding Alumnus by the UTHSC College of Dentistry.
Dr. Wenk said he was touched by Slaven’s comments, because they are a reminder of why people go to professional school – less for earning potential and more to be able to give back to the community.
“What I really liked about it,” Dr. Wenk said, “is you can see the East Tennessean reminding himself he is going to go home, and when he goes back, he still owes as a professional the responsibility of taking care of those people who can’t come into his office and pay.”
The Union City dental clinic is also built on that philosophy. It is located on West Main Street in newly renovated space donated through the generosity of the Bill and Carol Latimer Charitable Foundation.
“We are trying at this point to treat families who have a working parent or parents, but their family income is at such a low level that they can’t afford to have dental work,” Dr. Hottel said.
Dr. Hottel said the college is also expanding its presence in Nashville, working with Saint Thomas Health to open an Advanced Education in General Dentistry (AEGD), or residency program, to start there in July 2017, as well as sending senior dental students to Nashville for training at a dental clinic already under renovation in the community.
In East Tennessee, the College of Dentistry will grow as it occupies the third floor of the new Audiology Building being constructed on the UT-Knoxville campus. The dental space will house the existing AEGD and oral surgery programs and a pre-doctoral program for fourth-year students in a dental clinic setting.
Also in the works will be a clinical opportunity for fourth-year dental students at an existing clinic in Chattanooga. Delta Dental is providing the funding for the equipment for both of these planned spaces.
The new clinics supplement the clinical education and outreach work of the College of Dentistry’s community clinics in Memphis and Jackson, Tennessee, and Little Rock, Arkansas.
“In two more years, everybody in this whole state will know who we are and what we do,” Dr. Hottel said.
The clinical growth strategy for the College of Dentistry extends beyond general dentistry clinics, Dr. Hottel said, to include clinics in Memphis for pediatric and adult patients with special needs. “A couple of the things we’re trying to do locally, is to establish a center for working with patients that have temporomandibular joint disease and disorders of sleep apnea and sleep deprivation that can be treated in a dental office,” he said. “If we can gain ground in this here in Memphis, it will not only be something big for the region and big for the dental school, but big for the system in general.”
Space is being renovated in the Dunn Dental Building for this, and relationships are being forged with physicians at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital and the UTHSC College of Medicine who treat pediatric and adult patients with these special needs.
“We’ve got a lot of big things going on here,” Dr. Hottel said. “But treating the underprivileged and the special needs patients, to me, what better things could we be doing.”
For Slaven, who graduates in May and will begin a two-year pediatric dental residency in Memphis, there is nothing better. “Although East Tennessee is home for me, I believe that Bristol has made a lasting impression in the hearts of all of the student doctors who have visited the clinic,” he wrote. “These aren’t just my people — these are our people, our patients, and our clinic.”