Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey, MD, MBA, FAAP, toured the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s Union City Dental Clinic on Friday.
The clinic is one of three operated by the UTHSC College of Dentistry to provide necessary dental services to the underinsured and uninsured across the state from Union City in West Tennessee, to Chattanooga and Bristol in the eastern part of the state. The clinics are supervised by faculty and staffed by fourth-year dental students, as well as dental hygiene students, on rotations to provide dental services and gain clinical experience.
James C. Ragain, DDS, MS, PhD, FICD, FACD, dean of the College of Dentistry, said the Union City clinic has been essential in providing services during the pandemic and is a model for similar clinics the college envisions adding across the state in order to better serve rural areas in particular.
“We would like to set them up, similar to the Union City clinic, where we have a faculty member in place and the faculty member treats patients, then we rotate D4 (dental students) and D2 dental hygiene students up there for clinical experience,” the dean said.
The college has considered increasing its statewide footprint by also adding a large clinical training space in Knoxville that would allow for expansion of its incoming class from 98 to 130, Dean Ragain said.
The pandemic interrupted any consideration of expansion, however, the commissioner’s visit was an opportunity to show what a satellite clinic can accomplish in an area of need.
During Friday’s tour, Dr. Piercey met with Dean Ragain; UTHSC Chancellor Steve Schwab, MD; Orpheus Triplett, DDS, College of Dentistry assistant dean for Community Outreach; Ed Reese DDS, clinic director and an assistant professor in the UTHSC Department of General Dentistry; David Mills, director of Government Relations and Advocacy at UTHSC; and William “Bill” Latimer, a businessman and philanthropist who donated space for the clinic at 201 West Main Street and is its sponsor.
Dean Ragain described the commissioner’s clinic visit as “very informal to take a look at it and see what we’re doing.” He said the Union City clinic is “a really, really strong program” that has not only provided dental services during the pandemic but offered necessary clinical opportunities to D4 students so they could graduate on time this spring and summer.
“This is a unique situation where everybody wins,” Dr. Reese said. “Patients get their needs taken care of and the students get exposure in a clinical setting.”
The Bristol clinic, located in the Healing Hands Health Center, has operated during the pandemic. The Chattanooga clinic in the Dodson Avenue Neighborhood Health Center has been closed due to the pandemic, but is expected to reopen soon.
“We just don’t have enough dentists in Tennessee,” the dean said. “We’re thinking these clinics might be a way of getting the dental force out in community.” Dental students may choose to settle in communities where they have trained and provided services, he said.
The clinical growth strategy for the College of Dentistry that began in 2015 and 2016 with the three clinics extends beyond general dentistry clinics to include pediatric patients and adult patients with special needs, as well as possible future clinic space in Arkansas. A pediatric dental clinic opened in Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in December. A special needs clinic is included in plans for new College of Dentistry space on the Memphis campus.