Smiles are in High Demand

Tennessee Smiles: UT Grassroots Oral Health Outreach Initiative, a community outreach program based at the UT College of Dentistry, has made a habit of putting smiles on the faces of citizens of the Mid-South. Tennessee Smiles members provide complimentary oral health screenings and oral health information at local health fairs throughout the area. Armed with an array of donated dental care products and oral health educational tools, the grassroots initiative often serves those in the community who have fallen between the cracks.

Group photo: Tennessee Smiles Tennessee Smiles includes UT College of Dentistry faculty, staff and administration members (from left) Drs. Van Himel, Waletha Wasson, Marjorie Woods, Mary Aubertin, Maurice Lewis, Molly Rosebush and Wisdom Coleman.

Initiated by Waletha Wasson, DDS, associate professor in the Department of Endodontics and Operative Dentistry, the program 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 that 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 health care is the genesis of complete health care," explains Dr. Wasson.

Many of the citizens cared for by Tennessee Smiles have never had a dental screening. "Many people have no idea of the extent of their problems, which are often asymptomatic. These health fairs are an opportunity for us to give them insight," says member Molly Rosebush, DDS, MS, assistant professor in the Department of Biologic and Diagnostic Sciences. Most commonly found are dental decay, gum disease, and even oral cancer.

In addition to spreading oral health awareness and performing screenings, Tennessee Smiles members also serve as ambassadors of the dental profession and the UT College of Dentistry. Younger attendees are encouraged to become leaders in their community by distributing samples and teaching the oral care behaviors learned at the events to their family and friends. Limited reach media and discussions are also provided and designed to plant a seed to consider the dental field as a career choice.

Information about the UT College of Dentistry dental clinic is also available at the events. Many of the citizens are pleased to know they have dental health care options and can receive quality care from student doctors at the centrally located Dunn Dental building clinics. "Many don't know that this option is available. We hear it all the time, people have no idea that we are here…even those who cannot afford dental care," passionately explained Dr. Wasson.

A post-screening care, research and follow-up system is one of a handful of NIH pilot studies that are being developed by Tennessee Smiles. The group is interested in the bigger picture of 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," states Maurice Lewis, assistant professor in the Department of Endodontics and Operative Dentistry.

Teaching to floss
Inspecting a mouth
Group photo: Tennessee Smiles
In the photos above, Tennessee Smiles volunteers performed screenings and oral health instruction to Girls Incorporated of Memphis and Girl Scouts Heart of the South.

Tennessee Smiles is a community within itself, which brings together members from all facets of the college. "We have a unique group that is full of passion. We have everyone from the college pitching in at these community engagement efforts – deans, chairs, directors, faculty, student doctors, staff, family and friends. It is quite remarkable," says an exuberant Dr. Wasson.

The initiative also assists faculty in meeting professional requirements and student doctors in meeting their community service objectives. The Memphis chapters of the American Association of Women Dentists (AAWD) 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 numerous national SNDA "Chapter of the Year" awards, in part due to their community engagement efforts. The SNDA has also won several Certificates of Meritorious Achievement for the best scrapbook for community service activities.

Tennessee Smiles has grown so much in popularity that requests are outgrowing the time and resources that the group can provide. The demand for screenings, supplies and dental instruction has provided a few hurdles that are forcing the outreach program to scale back their availability and become more selective as to which events they attend. "There is an enormous need for oral health care in the community, and the requests are coming in so fast, there is more than we can possibly do. It's disheartening," says Dr. Wasson.

However, alumni can play a very 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 alums can help fulfill this need, from volunteering time at community screenings to donating complimentary oral health supplies to be distributed to citizens at health fairs. Current needs include:

  • Providing oral health care supplies (toothpaste, brushes, floss and mouthwash)
  • Donating services to underprivileged citizens
  • Volunteering to hold health fairs in the Memphis area, Mid-South, other areas of Tennessee, and 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, please contact Dr. Waletha Wasson's office in the UT College of Dentistry, (901) 448-6271.