The weekend of Jan. 30, a couple of thousand people were served at the Mid-South Mission of Mercy (MOM) dental clinic at Bellevue Baptist Church.
From the leaders of the local dental societies to the members and staff of Bellevue Baptist, along with the hundreds of other volunteers, it was amazing to see everyone working to realize a common goal — to serve those in our communities with the least access to dental care.
The local dental leaders did a great job in pulling off a big event that was a couple of years in the vision and planning stages. The Mid-South MOM was a huge success. But an event of that magnitude, with more than 2,000 people receiving care, also magnifies the fact that barriers to dental care still exist for large segments of our population.
Combine socioeconomic barriers with a high rate of need for dental services and a lack of dentists working in the areas of greatest need and we begin to see the picture that many in our communities face.
Serving as dental director for Christ Community Health Services (CCHS), I see those realities in our dental clinics every day. Surveys show that up to 60 percent of adults in Memphis and Shelby County received no dental services in the previous year, while a 2013 survey sponsored by Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare found that half of the low-income respondents had put off dental care due to lack of funds.
For children whose family income is above the federal poverty level, the rate of untreated dental decay is 10-12 percent nationally, compared with a rate of 50 percent for the children CCHS has examined through the Head Start program in Shelby County.
CCHS' focus is on providing low-cost, high-quality dental care in a Christian context to our neighbors. In the two communities where our most recent clinics have been built, there is only one dentist for every 8,714 people, compared with an average of one dentist for every 1,805 people for the entire county. Clearly, finances are not the only barrier to care, and we are seeking to help meet the need where it exists.
At the Mid-South Mission of Mercy, our dental leaders also recognized the need for care following the clinic and invited volunteers from Bellevue Baptist mobile dental clinic, University of Tennessee College of Dentistry, Church Health Center, and Christ Community Health Services to help answer the question "What's next?"
Our local community is recognizing this ongoing need. The Church Health Center is expanding its dental focus to treat more patients, and this year CCHS will be expanding from four dental locations to five as we open a new center in Raleigh.
We plan to receive more than 16,000 individual patients from our various neighborhoods next year. At CCHS, we are also committed to help develop dentists to meet this need. In partnership with Christian Medical & Dental Associations — which provides resources, networking opportunities, education and a public voice for Christian health care professionals and students — we have begun a training program for dentists who are committed to providing high-quality care to the underserved.
Thank you to our government leaders, local foundations and churches, and individuals who give to and serve in our local dental centers. They reduce the barriers to dental care.
I want to challenge us to continue to give so that we might make access to good oral health, which impacts our overall health, available on a daily basis to everyone in our community — regardless of ethnicity, religious affiliation or income.
Dr. Jeffrey D. Amstutz is dental director for Christ Community Health Services and vice president of dental ministries for Christian Medical & Dental Associations.