Ballad, Kingsport, ETSU, UT partnering on dental clinic

From left, Dr. Clay Runnels, chief physician executive with Ballad Health; Chris McCartt, Kingsport city manager; Dr. Peter Buckley, chancellor of the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center; Dr. James Ragain, dean of the University of Tennessee College of Dentistry; Mark Cox, retired Eastman executive; and Dr. Brian Noland, president, ETSU. Photo courtesy Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Hub

The Appalachian Highlands Dental Clinic, a cooperative venture serving Northeast Tennessee is one significant step closer to reality following a vote by the Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen (BMA). The city voted to sign a memorandum of understanding with the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center (UTHSC), East Tennessee State University (ETSU), and Ballad Health that could see the new teaching clinic locate adjacent to the campus of Holston Valley Medical Center. 

The MOU states the partners will collaboratively explore the establishment of a four-year full dental educational program, or potentially a dental school, within the corporate limits of the City of Kingsport and lays out how the partners will work together moving forward. 

“The BMA vote tonight represents a commitment to the community in terms of both health care and the economy,” said City Manager Chris McCartt. “We’re pleased that all parties involved see the potential benefit of locating the clinic in Kingsport and we look forward to realizing the benefits this will provide the entire region.”

Plans call for the facility to be located at 111 West Sevier Avenue. The city would pay for the lease of the property. UT has agreed to determine if funds from the Tennessee Healthy Smiles initiative, which would cover some recurring costs, can be used to contribute to covering the lease.

Students in UT’s College of Dentistry and ETSU’s Bachelor’s in Dental Hygiene program would do rotations in Advanced Education in General Dentistry. Students would gain experience in operative dentistry, oral surgery, urgent care, dental prophylaxis and limited removable prosthodontics. The program would be supported by residents from Ballad Health.

“This dovetails with East Tennessee State University’s mission to improve lives in the communities of the Appalachian Highlands,” said ETSU President Dr. Brian Noland. “Every community in the region stands to benefit as these students graduate and become part of our dental workforce, providing much-needed care.” 

Tennessee ranks 43rd of 50 states in access to dentists for citizens, according to US News & World Report. Statewide, Tennessee is about 800 dentists short of American Dental Association recommended levels. Compounding the problem is the fact that, according to the state of Tennessee’s Healthy Smiles Initiative, almost 1,300 of the state’s 3,247 practicing dentists will retire within the next decade. 

“At a time when the number of dentists practicing in Tennessee is declining at an alarming rate, this partnership will increase the quality of dental care and the number of dentists in the Appalachian Highlands,” said Ballad Health Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Alan Levine. “Ballad Health is proud to be a part of this historic venture.”

Dr. James Ragain, dean of the UTHSC College of Dentistry, said, “We are focused on increasing the dental workforce across Tennessee, but particularly in rural communities, where the need is greatest.” At present, five of eight counties in Northeast Tennessee have fewer than half the number of dentists recommended by the American Dental Association. 

The UTHSC is eager to serve Northeast Tennessee, said Chancellor Dr. Peter Buckley. “The UTHSC currently operates more than 100 clinical and educational sites across the state. Our degree-granting programs have more than 3,300 primarily doctoral students enrolled. We look forward to working with our partners in the Appalachian Highlands to train the next generation of regional leaders in the health sciences.” 

Phase I start-up costs are estimated in the $1 million to $1.3 million range with build-out costs at $1 million to $3 million and around $800,000 in recurring costs. In addition to what each partner will bring to the venture, additional grant funding will be sought through the Appalachian Regional Commission. Other proposed partners will include BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, Delta Dental, and Eastman. The First Tennessee Development District and Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Hub are collaborating on the grant application process.

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