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Dentists Help Low-Income Adults in Tennessee Return to the Workforce

June 19, 2014

Looking for a job in the current market is hard enough without suffering from pain and sometimes disfigurement associated with untreated dental disease.

Dentists in Tennessee have found a way to remedy the problem through Interfaith Dental Clinic, which started with one dental chair in the basement of a Nashville church and expanded into two community-based clinics where dentists restore the dental health of low-income, uninsured adults to help them return to the workforce. 

Dr. Tom Underwood, a Nashville-based dentist, worked with the Nashville Dental Society and the West End United Methodist Church to launch the Interfaith Dental Clinic in the basement of the church in 1994. His goal was to provide affordable dental care for working poor families and the elderly who don’t qualify for public assistance but may have trouble affording dental care. 

In 1998, Interfaith Dental Clinic moved into its own building, and in 2012 a second clinic opened in nearby Rutherford County, according to Dr. Roy Thompson, who spearheaded the fundraising and foundation of the Rutherford County clinic and is chair of the American Dental Association’s Council on Access, Prevention and Interprofessional Relations.

The Rutherford County clinic’s focus is providing restorative care to working adults between the ages of 20 and 40, he noted. Staff and volunteer dentists most commonly provide all aspects of care, including implants, orthodontics, and full and partial dentures. 

“We’re not a long-term dental home,” said Dr. Thompson. “We take people from start to finish in regards to whatever dental treatment they might need. Once they’re restored to good oral health, we send them to private practices with the hope that they are now employable and will earn an income that will allow them to maintain their dental health.”

The model of care has proven highly successful, according to Dr. Rhonda Switzer-Nadasdi, executive director of the clinic.

“About 75 percent of the people who join the program graduate with sound oral health,” she said. “They are cavity free, gum disease maintainable, work place ready and possessing the skills, habits and knowledge to maintain their oral health for a lifetime.” 

Patients pay a reduced fee that is roughly 20 percent of what the same services would cost at a private practice, said Dr. Thompson. To offset expenses, the clinic relies on donations from individuals, foundations, companies, and congregations, as well as patient fees to subsidize its services.  The clinics see approximately 2,500 patients a year.

The two clinic locations also host dental residents from Lutheran Medical Center through an agreement with the University of Tennessee.  

“We want to be a training center for young dentists who want to consider this type of career,” he said. “People who participate in this type of residency are more likely to return to that setting as a career choice.”