Monday, December 7, 2009

Meharry aids uninsured at high-tech dental clinic

By Christina E. Sanchez • THE TENNESSEAN • December 7, 2009 With more than a million Tennesseans lacking dental insurance, Meharry Medical College is hoping a new oral health clinic will help treat underserved populations with the latest technology. The new dental clinic will serve uninsured patients while allowing student dentists to practice oral health care with technology that is changing dentistry. "As the nation grapples with health reform, good oral health needs to be a part of that," said Wayne Riley, president of Meharry. "It must include access of dental services to the overall population." Meharry built its dental imaging clinic at the school of dentistry using a $780,000 grant from Delta Dental of Tennessee. The new facility took about two years to construct. The clinic is different because it offers digital imaging machines that can produce three-dimensional X-rays of teeth on a computer screen. The dentists can view the tooth from any angle, cutting the image in half or sections to see details. The digital machine is not available in most dentists' offices. Many Tennesseans don't regularly see dentist No film or chemicals are required because the images are all produced on computers. The clinic also has traditional plastic film X-rays because state board testing requires dentists to be able to use the technology. Jenessa Holloway was thankful to be able to go the clinic. She works, but her benefits don't kick in until next year. It was cheaper for her to pay the reduced fees that Meharry offers than to sign up for interim insurance. About 75 percent of the patients that Meharry treats are uninsured. "Your teeth are important," Holloway said. "If you have a problem, it can bring you down for a while." Tennesseans don't do a good job of taking care of their teeth, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency's Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance System showed in 2006 that the state ranked 42nd in the nation for people going to the dentist. About 66 percent of adults in Tennessee had at least one dental visit in a year, compared with 70 percent nationally. And the lower the annual income, the less likely a person was to get a dental checkup. Lack of regular dental care causes some people to end up in the emergency room. More than 50,000 Tennesseans took a trip to the emergency department for dental-related problems in 2005, the latest numbers available. Training future dentists Delta Dental donated the money to Meharry to help produce top student dentists with the latest qualifications. "The only way we will produce more and better quality care is to turn out students," said Dr. Phil Wenk, president and chief executive officer of Delta Dental of Tennessee. "Meharry's mission is to help the underserved populations. They make their students very conscious of that." Simeon Udunka, a third-year dental student at the college, is excited about the opportunity to practice in the clinic. "When you have something of this magnitude as a resource to be trained, it's a blessing," Udunka said. "It's one thing to get your books and hear all the lectures, but it's another thing to actually put it into practice and help people."

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