It’s not as visible as an open wound or a viral infection or even the flu. But infected teeth, tooth decay and teeth that need to be pulled can have serious effects on overall health. And, while the surgeon general’s report says overall oral health in the U.S. has improved, the gap in use of services between low-income people (those with incomes under 200 percent of the Federal poverty level) and higher income people (those with incomes over 400 percent of the Federal poverty level) has increased.
The staff and volunteers at Trinity Dental Clinic know these statistic on an up-close level. Many people living in Blount County have dental problems but can’t afford to go to a private dentist. They turn to Trinity, a Christian-based nondenominational nonprofit, for help.
The clinic, which is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year, helps an average of 2,000. The clinic was established to provide emergency dental care for those who don’t have the financial means to see a dentist.
Dr. Ben Briley, clinic director, said the need for emergency dental care in the community was determined a few years ago, and several people worked together to address the issue. Dr. Tim McConnell, an oral and maxillary surgeon, and Larry Durand, an endodontist, meet with Briley to discuss the idea of a clinic. Nurses Joann Smith and Stephanie Howell also became involved. In 2006, the clinic opened in McConnell’s old office space with funding from Blount Memorial Hospital and the Tennessee Baptist Foundation. The Leadership Blount Class of 2006 also held a fundraiser for Trinity as their legacy project that year.
Briley, a retired U.S. Air Force officer and dentist, said one reason that the clinic has been so successful is that it offers a limited scope of services with high quality care. Trinity focuses on pain and infection situations rather than trying to provide comprehensive services that would be even more costly.
Patients of the clinic must meet certain criteria before being seen and have to provide documentation of Blount County residency and public assistance support or social security income. They must also have a picture ID.
Trinity board member Ann Peterson said patients have to pay about a small amount for their services - about 10 percent of what a private dentist would charge. The clinic’s board surveyed local dentists to see what they charged and then set the clinic’s nominal fees. Cleanings and tooth extraction are $15 each.
Briley said they didn’t think that the fees would be that significant in the overall operating budget, but it does amount to about 20 percent, and it is also positive for the patients to contribute something.
“We feel like it’s important for the patients to take some ownership, too,” he said.
Office Manager Benalee Hutsell said the clinic sees close to 2,000 patients a year, which includes cleaning and extractions. Since January of this year, they’ve seen 935 patients and done 1,400 tooth extractions. Although the organization is Christian based, patients do not have to be Christian in order to receive services, she said. The clinic gives Bibles to those who would like one.
The facility is open two days a week, Monday and Tuesday, and has three part-time, contract employees including Briley, Hutsell and a dental assistant. The rest of the work is done with volunteers. Peterson said volunteers help in the lab, sterilizing the equipment and setting up trays, and some may assist the dentist. Other volunteers help with office needs such as setting appointments, answering the phones and checking in patients.
Peterson said local dentists volunteer their time and help the clinic provide additional appointments on Thursday and Friday mornings, depending on their availability.
“Ideally, we would use our space five days a week,” Peterson said.
“We would really like to involve more of the community dentists,” she added.
Briley said in the early years, the clinic struggled from month to month to keep the doors open, but in 2008, Trinity became a United Way organization, which was a “watershed” moment. Being part of United Way helped give the clinic extra credibility as well as providing ongoing funding.
“We’ve had some tough times, but we’ve been able to keep the doors open,” he said. “We’ve pretty much become a fixture on the Blount County horizon.”
Trinity still receives funding from the hospital as well as a grant from the state and donations from the community. Area churches also contribute to the clinic including an annual golf tournament organized by Maryville First United Methodist Church. During a recent fifth anniversary fundraiser and celebration, the clinic was able to raise additional funds to help purchase an digital x-ray machine. The Leadership Blount Class of 2006 is also planning a fundraiser for this fall in honor of the clinic’s fifth anniversary.
The clinic accepts monetary donations but also has daily needs such as trash bags, adult tooth brushes, paper towels and toilet paper, disinfectant wipes and other supplies.
The clinic is located at 1127 E. Lamar Alexander Parkway, just east of Blount Memorial Hospital.