10 Under 10: Dr. Elizabeth Benz's dental journey to working with vulnerable populations

Photo of Dr. Benz
Swing: Dr. Elizabeth Benz enjoys a morning in the playground with her children.
Dr. Elizabeth Benz, of Providence, Rhode Island,  is among the recipients of this year’s 10 Under 10 awards, which recognizes new dentist who demonstrate excellence early in their careers. Dr. Benz serves as the director of the Samuels Sinclair Dental Center at Rhode Island Hospital and as program director of the Joseph S. Sinclair General Practice Residency. Dr. Benz also manages a multi-million dollar hospital-based practice specializing in intellectually disabled individuals and medically complex patients. She has procured two grants from Delta Dental of Rhode Island for charitable dental care, equipment and technology upgrades.

Editor's note: The American Dental Association is seeking nominations through Dec. 31 to recognize 10 new dentists in 2021. Honorees will receive a $1,000 gift card and be recognized in various ADA publications and channels. For more information or to nominate a new dentist, visit ADA.org/10under10.

Dr. Elizabeth Benz always had an interest in medicine, but was encouraged to explore other career paths by medical professionals who were dissatisfied in their field.

In high school and college, Dr. Benz began shadowing a local orthodontist, and it was there where she fell in love with dentistry. She says it was the hands-on aspect that she enjoyed the most and in 2011, graduated from the Boston University School of Dental Medicine.

However, today, Dr. Benz somehow still finds herself practicing in a hospital setting.

As the director of the Samuels Sinclair Dental Center at Rhode Island Hospital, Dr. Benz works with special needs patients who are intellectually disabled.

“I have patients who have either neglected their dental care or have been unable to be treated at outside practices come and be treated here. And that is probably the most rewarding.”

In her almost 10-year dental career, Dr. Benz has done a great deal of work with medical specialists at the hospital in cardiothoracic surgery, hematology/oncology, and radiation oncology. There, she helps to clear patients for various treatments such as cancer, head and neck radiology, cardiac surgeries, and kidney transplants. She’s also a frequent collaborator, doing screenings and health fairs, with Children’s Friend, an Early Head Start and Women Infant Children (WIC) program for the state of Rhode Island.

Currently working with 85-90% of Rhode Island’s group home patients, Dr. Benz also spends her time educating staff on how to identify abnormalities in nonverbal patients.

“We have oral hygiene clinics for the group home staff so they know how to take care of these patients”, she said.

Making the switch from private practice to working in a hospital came with its adjustments, as Dr. Benz was unaware of all that hospital dentistry entailed.

“When I first went into dentistry, I somewhat knew that there were hospital dentists,” she said. “But I really thought it was a just a residency program that trains people and that was the end of their exposure to hospital dentistry. And so, I think since being in this environment, my overall view of dentistry has changed."

Of all the work that Dr. Benz does, she wants people to know that there is not a single patient that is impossible to treat. She says that whether it's taking multiple visits and having a patient come in every three weeks to desensitize them, or taking a patient to an operating room because they are so medically complex, everyone should be able to receive dental care.

“Being in dentistry has opened my eyes and exposed me to a lot more people than I ever thought,” she said. “We meet people from all walks of life, from our referrals from the hospital to our private practice patients that we treat, to the special needs patients and their caregivers and guardians. And I've gained so much just from interacting with them. But overall, just encountering my patients on a day to day basis has really changed me.”