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New Rural Dental Clinic Sees Slow But Steady Growth

A new dental school treatment center in Ahoskie, NC begins it’s first month of seeing patients in a historically under-served area.

By Kelsey Tsipis

This summer when Dr. Ford Grant moved from Charlotte to Ahoskie, a town of 5,000 near the Chowan and Meherrin rivers in northeastern North Carolina, he got asked “You’re not from around here, are you?” every place he went.

Prior to the move, Grant had never been to the area before but had experience in rural dentistry after spearheading a mobile dentistry service for nursing home patients at the Carolinas Medical Center.

Treatment chairs at the new ECU affiliated dental clinic

Now Grant will be serving another under-treated population as the leading faculty dentist at a new clinic in Ahoskie that the East Carolina University School of Dental Medicine opened July 1st.

The $3 million clinic is part of the new school’s effort of fighting the shortage of dentist in rural areas of the state by treating patients and training dental students who are interested in small-town practices.

“There’s a shortage of dentists in this area that can provide care for indigent patients and medically compromised patients,” said Grant. “This is going to meet that need.”

Ruth Hunter, one of the clinic’s first patients knows that shortage all too well. The 61-year-old was instructed to see a dentist by her primary care doctor, but was told by the two in town that they’re not taking any new patients.

“Financially I couldn’t travel out of town,” said Hunter, whose last visit to the dentist was in 2008. So when a friend told her about a new clinic being built down the road that was taking patients, she called the day they opened.

Four days later, Hunter was sitting in a chair with Dr. Grant and two residents discussing an abscessed tooth that has been giving her pain for weeks.

“We can’t control where our residents practice when they leave school,” said Grant. “They could decide to go anywhere. But if someone has an experience in taking care of patients in the area, they learn about the area and learn this is a good place to live and practice…  if you can do those things, maybe we’ll look back in a few years and see that we made some impact on the disparities in oral care.”

In two years, when the inaugural class of ECU dental students are in their fourth year, each will do three rotations of about nine weeks each in three different clinics. Each clinic will have five students, two residents, a full-time faculty dentist and a half-time dentist. Each dental resident will be assigned to work in a single clinic for a year. And like Grant, they’ll all live in the communities they serve.

Ruth Hunter, one of the clinic’s first patients, discusses treatment options with Dr. Grant

The 8,000 square foot clinic has a total of 15 exam chairs, of of which is wheelchair accessible, advanced 3D imaging technology and built in x-ray machines to each dental station. The clinic is also equipped with a high-definition video cameras to video conference with specialists at ECU in Greenville.

The state-of-the-art clinic is the first of what will eventually be 10 such centers across the state. The other planned sites so far are Elizabeth City, which will open in September, Lillington in central North Carolina, and Sylva and Spruce Pine in the western part of the state.

The clinic is also the first time a dental school treatment center was affiliated with a federally qualified health care clinic, said Sara Chewining said, the business manager for the clinic.

The clinic has partnered with Roanoke Chowan Community Health Center, a federally-supported nonprofit medical center under construction next door, to provide federally- and Medicaid- funded care at costs based on income levels.

Prices are about 30 percent less than private dentists, said Chewining.

“That’s pretty unique,” said Grant. “We’ll work closely together, referring patients to each other and sharing records. The dental school will be able to make good use of the medical clinic in building a patient base.”

Grant said the location of the clinic was chosen because it is a historically under-served area.

“We’ve already seen the effects of how under-served the area is,” said Grant. “We had a patient in our first week that had so many multiple complications that the dentist that was taking care of them asked them to go into Greenville or a hospital but they came here and we were able to take care of all their needs.”

The clinic will also take Medicaid, said Grant which is vital in high unemployment, rural areas.

However, even with high demand of dentist services the clinic is off to a slow start. There’s still supplies to be shipped in, receptionists to hire and exam rooms to be finished. The staff, which currently consists of Dr. Grant and 4 residents that have already completed dental school have been seeing three to four patients a day for the last month.

“We have goals, but it’s never been done before,” said Grant. “There’s funding but it doesn’t cover everything. I have to have a practice within a practice. You can’t let the teaching side be sacrificed by production side of it. You have to have balance.”

But Grant said as the patient base builds, especially with help from the Roanoke Chowan Community Health Center, the clinic will be well prepared to meet the high demand.

A resident at the ECU School of Dentistry discusses a patient case with a faculty member.

“Right now we have brand new residents and still have little things going on with the building, but eventually we’ll have 5 dentists that can see patients,” said Grant.

Grant also said the community has already expressed their gratitude for the clinic. People around town often come up to him asking when they can get an appointment while pointing at an abscessed tooth.

“The folks here are just so nice,” said Grant. “We can do better for them. And this is doing better. A year from now I’m hoping I can tell you we’re there.”

Photo credits: Kelsey Tsipis

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