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UTHSC Leads $53 Million Healthy Smiles Initiative to Increase Access to Dental Care Across Tennessee

The UTHSC College of Dentistry is committed to improving oral health across Tennessee.

The College of Dentistry at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, in collaboration with the Tennessee Department of Health, is undertaking a $53 million project over the next five years to increase access to dentists and dental care across Tennessee, with a focus on the rural areas with the most need.  

Funded by the state and called the Healthy Smiles Initiative, the ambitious project is a multipronged approach to tackling the current shortage of dentists in Tennessee and improving health across the state by making dental care more readily available. The Tennessee Department of Health has committed a total of $94 million for its overall statewide Healthy Smiles oral health effort.

The numbers tell a sobering story for Tennessee, one that the UTHSC College of Dentistry aims to do its part to rewrite.  

  • U.S. News & World Report ranks Tennessee 43rd in access to dentists for its citizens and 46th in adult dental visits
  • 86 counties are below the recommendation by the Health Policy Institute of the American Dental Association of 61 dentists per 100,000 residents  
  • 26 counties have less than 20 dentists per 100,000 people  
  • Tennessee will be 800-plus dentists short, according to American Dental Association estimates, as the older ranks of licensed dentists retire over the next 10 years

The Healthy Smiles Initiative allows for an increase in the number of dental students per class at UTHSC from the current 110 to 130 over the next few years. The College of Dentistry is set to increase the size of its incoming dental class to 120 in July, making this class the largest in approximately 30 years.

At the same time, the dental hygiene classes will increase from 35 to 48-50 students, with two class starts per year. The new $45 million Delta Dental of Tennessee Building on the Memphis campus makes accommodating and training the larger classes possible. A “floss cutting” to officially open the state-of-the-art building is set for April 14. Under the leadership of Delta Dental CEO Phil Wenk, DDS, chair of the UTHSC Advisory Board and an alumnus of the UTHSC College of Dentistry, Delta Dental of Tennessee provided $6.3 million for construction costs and $1.4 million for equipment to make the building a reality.

New faculty will also be hired over the course of the grant funding, which runs through FY 2027. New hires for the Doctor of Dental Science (DDS) program will total 29, and the Dental Hygiene program will add eight faculty members. Salaries for current faculty are also increasing in line with a recently completed market analysis.   

While educating and training future dentists is a major component of the Healthy Smiles Initiative, providing dental care to the underserved across Tennessee is also a primary focus. 

This will be accomplished through expansion of dental student rotations at clinics in areas of greatest need in the state. Based on the successful model of established UTHSC College of Dentistry clinics in Union City in West Tennessee, and Chattanooga and Bristol in the eastern part of the state, new clinics are being added in Crossville, Knoxville, Kingsport, Jackson, and Pulaski. These clinics are supervised by faculty and staffed by fourth-year dental students and second-year dental hygiene students on two-week rotations, allowing them to provide dental services for the uninsured and underinsured and gain clinical experience. 

Last fall, dental student Elvys Ferrufino, in blue scrubs, spoke with UTHSC Chancellor Peter Buckley, left, and UT System President Randy Boyd, back row, second from right, about helping people who come from hundreds of miles for dental care to the UTHSC dental clinic in the Dodson Community Health Center in Chattanooga.

In Kingsport, the college is working with Ballad Health, Delta Dental of Tennessee, Eastman Chemical, the City of Kingsport, the Northeast Tennessee Regional Development Hub, East Tennessee State University, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, and others on a collaborative dental clinic that will support the student rotations there. The Kingsport Dental Clinic of the Appalachian Highlands will also be the site of an Advanced Education in General Dentistry (AEGD) program, offering postgraduate dental residency training in that region. The space will allow for clinical rotations for ETSU dental hygiene students, a major step toward a more robust and collaborative academic and clinical presence for UTHSC in Eastern Tennessee. 

Additionally, new AEGD residency sites are being established in Knoxville and Jackson.  

“It’s a very exciting time to be part of our college,” said James Ragain, DDS, MS, PhD, FICD, FACD, dean of the UTHSC College of Dentistry. “The Healthy Smiles Initiative is basically a plan to increase our outreach across the state to the underserved population. We’re putting this plan in place to increase our workforce and to extend our extramural rotations across the state.”  

The dean said the Healthy Smiles Initiative is one of UTHSC’s largest statewide efforts. The access to dental care in some rural areas of Tennessee is far below the national average,” Dean Ragain said. “We are actively recruiting potential dental and dental hygiene students from many of those counties. We hope that many of them would want to return home after their dental training.”  

Allen Stanton, formerly the director of the Turner Center for Rural Vitality at UT Southern, joined the College of Dentistry in December to serve as the administrative project manager for the Healthy Smiles Initiative. 

“This project is meaningful for a number of reasons,” Stanton said. “We are actively recruiting potential dental and dental hygiene students from many of those counties. We hope that many of them would want to return home after their dental training.”  

 “It’s exciting to see the Tennessee legislature invest in the Healthy Smiles Initiative and ultimately the health of our neighbors,” Dr. Wenk said. “This project is the perfect example of a collaborative public-private partnership, as so many entities come together to increase the dental workforce in our state and work to ensure dental care is available and truly accessible. As a UTHSC College of Dentistry alum, I’m proud to see UTHSC and ETSU working together in an unprecedented way.”

UTHSC Chancellor Peter Buckley, MD, expressed gratitude to Ralph Alvarado, MD, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health, and Lisa Piercey, MD, former Tennessee Department of Health commissioner, as well as to the Tennessee Legislature for their support of the Healthy Smiles Initiative and its future impact on the health of the citizens of Tennessee.

“Partnerships are powerful and we exist through partnerships,” the chancellor said. “Furthermore, we can’t do what we do without our partners, and what we do is vital to Tennessee.” 

UTHSC Healthy Smiles Initiative At-a-Glance

  • $52,905,200 over five years (FY 2023-2027). Overall, the state has committed $94 million to improving oral health for Tennesseans ($28.5 million for the Tennessee Department of Health; $52.9 million to the UTHSC College of Dentistry, and $12.9 million to Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry)
  • Increase dental student class size to 130 (one class start per year over several years) 
  • Increase dental hygiene class to 48-50 (two class starts per year) 
  • Increase number of dental student clinical rotations (Crossville, Knoxville, Kingsport, Jackson, Pulaski). Existing clinics in Union City, Chattanooga, and Bristol 
  • Additional AEGD residency sites (Knoxville, Kingsport, Jackson)