Feature — 12 March 2010
Smiles Are in High Demand

Tennessee Smiles has made a habit of putting smiles on the faces of citizens of the Mid-South. The oral health outreach initiative based in the UT College of Dentistry provides complimentary oral health screenings and oral health information at health fairs throughout the area. Armed with donated dental care products and oral health educational tools, the grass-roots initiative serves those in the community who have fallen between the cracks.

Dr. Waletha Wasson, associate professor in the Department of Endodontics and Operative Dentistry, initiated the program, which has performed dental screenings and spread awareness of the importance of oral health to more than 5,000 citizens at approximately 140 community events since 2003. “We are all about serving the community and making sure the citizens of Tennessee understand that the mouth is the first portal of entry, and you have to make sure that it stays healthy. Oral healthcare is the genesis of complete healthcare,” Wasson says.

Many of the citizens cared for by Tennessee Smiles have never had a dental screening. They may not have any idea of the extent of their problems, which are often asymptomatic, says Dr. Molly Rosebush, assistant professor in the Department of Biologic and Diagnostic Sciences.

“These health fairs are an opportunity for us to give them insight,” Rosebush says. The problems most often found are dental decay, gum disease, and even oral cancer.

Besides spreading oral health awareness and performing screenings, Tennessee Smiles members serve as ambassadors for the dental profession and the UT College of Dentistry. Younger attendees are encouraged to become leaders in their communities by distributing samples and teaching their family and friends the oral health tips they learned at the screenings. The youngsters also get some subtle encouragement to consider the dental field as a career choice.

The events also help spread the word about the care available at the UT College of Dentistry dental clinic, where patients can receive quality care from student doctors.

“Many don’t know this option is available,” Wasson laments. “We hear it all the time: people have no idea that we are here—even those who cannot afford dental care.”

Tennessee Smiles is developing a post-screening care, research, and follow-up system as part of a National Institutes of Health pilot study. The group is interested in the bigger picture of the oral health needs of the citizens of -Tennessee and issues to justify legislation, grants, and more funding. “One of our goals is to be an advocate and reach out to the legislature and insurance companies who have traditionally considered dental issues as an adjunct, not a necessity,” says Dr. Maurice Lewis, assistant professor in the Department of Endodontics and Operative Dentistry.

Tennessee Smiles is a community within itself, which brings together members from all parts of the college. “We have a unique group that is full of passion,” Wasson says. “We have everyone from the college pitching in at these community engagement efforts—deans, chairs, directors, faculty members, student doctors, staff members, family members, and friends. It’s quite remarkable.”

The initiative also helps faculty members meet professional requirements and student doctors fulfill their community service objectives. The Memphis chapters of the American Association of Women Dentists and Student National Dental Association (SNDA) partnered on a recent event to illustrate the leadership of women in the dental field. The local chapter of the SNDA is often a partner with Tennessee Smiles, providing much-needed helping hands while fulfilling its service mission in the process. In turn, students have won many national SNDA “Chapter of the Year” awards, due in part to their community engagement efforts.

Tennessee Smiles has grown so popular that requests are outgrowing the time and resources the group can provide. Increased demand for screenings, supplies, and dental instruction has forced the outreach program to scale back its availability and become more selective about which events to attend. “There is an enormous need for oral healthcare in the community, and the requests are coming in so fast that there is more than we can possibly do. It’s disheartening,” says Wasson.

However, alumni can play an important role in helping Tennessee Smiles carry out its mission of spreading oral health awareness and performing community services. There are a number of ways alumni can help, such as volunteering time at community screenings and donating complimentary oral health supplies to be distributed to citizens at health fairs. Current needs include the following:

  • Providing oral healthcare supplies (toothpaste, brushes, floss, and mouthwash)
  • Donating services to underprivileged citizens
  • Volunteering to hold health fairs in the Memphis area, the Mid-South, and other areas of Tennessee in coordination with Tennessee Smiles members
  • Collecting data for legislative efforts, grants, and funding.

For more information about Tennessee Smiles or to assist in this oral health outreach initiative, contact Wasson’s office in the UT College of Dentistry, 901-448-6271.

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