By Peter White
NASHVILLE, TN — The Mathew Walker Comprehensive Health Center on Jefferson St. is going to increase its dental services soon. Dental residents from the University of Tennessee in Memphis will be furloughed to work at the clinic next year.
Talks between UT, St Thomas, and Mathew Walker are ongoing and no final agreement has been signed yet. Residents from Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry work at the clinic now and they will continue to do so.
“We did not go looking for this. We are excited about it because of what it means to our community and our ability to serve more people particularly those who are uninsured and who go I don’t know how long without dental care,” said CEO Katina Beard.
Beard said St Thomas Health initiated a discussion to help Thomas Walker serve more dental patients by increasing its capacity with more residents and some new equipment.
“The Meharry students who rotate through here will have a richer experience because our clinic will be renovated and we will have new equipment,” said Beard.
The clinic has three staff dentists and one hygienist. During the school year, Meharry supplies from 6-10 residents to the clinic at Thomas Walker. With the addition of residents from UT in Memphis the minimum will be ten residents and there probably will be more than ten.
Meharry runs its own low-cost dental clinic and its faculty oversee the students who work as residents in the school’s clinic. Mathew Walker does the same thing.
“We are training people to be in the pipeline to be dental providers in communities where there is need,” Beard said. That includes half a dozen Meharry dental students dentists and will include UT student dentists also, she says.
“We are training them in the community in a system that cares for people with low resources so that they then will then go out and work in other communities that are low resource,” Beard said.
“Do you know how bad the oral health problem is in this state?” asks Janet Caldwell, spokesperson for Meharry’s dental school. “It’s really bad and we need all the help we can get,” she says.
The Interfaith Dental Clinic on Patterson St. offers charity dental services. It is downtown in the hospital district and not far from Meharry and Mathew Walker.
“We get the more advanced cases, the worst cases,” says Rhonda Switzer-Nadasdi, Interfaith’s CEO.
“It doesn’t matter how poor, how sick, or how old you are. If you are over 21 you are not eligible for any services that are supported by anyone else so that leaves out people in poverty from accessing dental services,” she said.
There is no dental benefit in Medicare and many seniors have poor oral health because they neglect their teeth.
“I think West Virginia is the only state where seniors have less teeth than we do, so we are 49th there and I believe we are 47th in the overall health rankings. So that’s a lot of the crisis,” said Switzer-Nadasdi.
Dr. Tom Underwood and the Nashville Dental Society founded the Interfaith Dental Clinic in 1994. It began with a two-chair operation in the basement of the West End United Methodist Church.
The clinic now serves 2500 patients a year with 15 dental chairs and state of the art equipment in its two clinics in Nashville and Murfreesboro. Practicing dentists, oral surgeons, and other dental specialists donate their time and skills treating patients without charge at one of the two clinic sites.
The interfaith dental clinic has one dental resident from UT Memphis at each of its sites and they have surgical residents from Vanderbilt.
Switzer-Nadasdi says low-cost dental service providers created a Middle Tennessee All Health Coalition that meets once a month.
“We work very closely with all those groups. We get together once a month and talk about who’s doing what and how to increase everybody’s capacity and not duplicate services,” says Switzer-Nadasdi.
“You could say UT is creeping this way and you would think this is Meharry’s territory but again there is so much need. You know, its hard work. It’s really hard work so if anybody can figure out how to do more of it better, then more power to them,” she said.