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Dentist Moves to Rural Virginia after Seeing Unmet Need in Small Community

September 4, 2014

After selling his suburban private practice in Richmond, Va., six years ago, Dr. Ed Griggs decided to make a difference by working on the Eastern Shore, one of the most dentally underserved areas in the state.

His decision to move was in part influenced by mission trips and charitable work at home and abroad. 

Dr. Griggs had twice visited Honduras on mission trips, where he treated patients with severe dental issues. But when he participated in a Mission of Mercy – a two-day charitable care event in rural Wise, Va., organized by the Virginia Dental Association – he was struck by the acute need for dental care closer to home. 

“The mouths that I saw in Wise were just as bad as the mouths that I saw in Honduras,” said Dr. Griggs. “At the time, I asked myself, ‘How could that be?’ The Mission of Mercy opened my eyes to the reality of the dental crisis in America."

Now, Dr. Griggs is one of four full-time dentists and four part-time dentists at Eastern Shore Rural Health System, Inc., a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC), based in Onancock, Va. He is also the sole full-time dentist at the Atlantic Community Health Center, which has a state-of-the-art, seven-chair dental clinic. 

“There are just not enough dentists there to meet the need for basic dental services,” Dr. Griggs noted. “I realized that having a practice in Richmond met a need, but I could be easily replaced.  Practicing on the Eastern Shore helped to meet a critical need.” 

Most of the people seeking treatment at the community health centers don’t have insurance or have limited financial means, and haven’t regularly visited a dentist in years. Many require emergency procedures.  

Dr. Griggs performs extractions, fillings, and root canals, as well as hygiene services.  

“Since I’ve been here we’ve expanded our dental program, but that still doesn’t meet the need,” he said. “We can’t treat them all, but we do the best that we can.”  

Two other dentists provide care one day per week at the Atlantic Community Health Center, and a dental hygienist assists Dr. Griggs on a daily basis. But for many people living on the Eastern Shore, it can be difficult to find a dentist.  

The Eastern Shore is part of the Delmarva Peninsula, which is comprised of most of Delaware and parts of Maryland and Virginia. It is separated from the rest of Virginia by the Chesapeake Bay. Getting to the nearest metropolitan area requires people to either drive 60 miles north to Salisbury, Md., or 80 miles south to Virginia Beach, a trek that includes the 23-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge – Tunnel.  

“The nearest oral surgeon is basically an hour north and or two hours south from my community health center,” said Dr. Griggs. “The bridge itself is an obstacle to receiving proper dental care because there’s a $13 toll each way, so if we refer patients to a specialist, then we can provide those most in need with vouchers, but even then transportation can be an obstacle.”

Despite the community’s high migrant population, language is not a barrier to care at the community health center because it employs staff to provide interpretation services, according to Dr. Griggs.

“A lot of my patients have never been to the dentist, or their last dental visit was 30 years ago,” said Dr. Griggs. “You deal with the mentality that teeth are just something you want to get rid of so you can get your dentures.”