Dental patients double at free clinic

Published 11:00 pm Saturday, July 21, 2012

Since Franklin dentist Ernest Knight accepted a part-time, grant-funded position at the Western Tidewater Free Clinic in January, the number of patients has nearly doubled and clinic visits have more than tripled.

Knight was volunteering at the Suffolk clinic, which provides free medical services to low-income residents Suffolk and the remainder of Western Tidewater, when the grant came through.

“This seemed like a great way to balance my current practice in Franklin with serving the needs of the WTFC patients,” Knight said.

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Growing up in Carrsville and attending school in Windsor, Knight thought about going to medical school, but his path led him to teach biology at Smithfield High School for four years until a friend suggested he apply to dental school.

After graduating from The Medical College of Virginia Dental School, he opened his practice in Franklin in 1981. When the Western Tidewater Free Clinic opened its dental suite in 2010, he was asked to volunteer.

The clinic originally was staffed by numerous local dental volunteers, but the need for dental care quickly outpaced the capacity of an all-volunteer dental staff.

“Literally all of our patients are in need of oral health care,” said Clinic Executive Director Miriam Beiler.

Recognizing the close link of oral health to overall health and the long waiting list of patients in need of dental care, Beiler and her staff applied for a grant through the Virginia Health Care Foundation to fund a part-time dentist and dental assistant for 16 hours per week.

“By setting a daytime schedule and hiring a part-time dentist to supplement our wonderful volunteer support, we felt it would provide our patients more comprehensive care and improve their overall health,” she said.

After Dr. Knight came aboard part-time, the number of dental patients increased 180 percent, and clinic visits increased more than 300 percent within a five-month period.

“Through this VHCF grant, we are able to help 500 to 600 more patients a year,” Beiler said.

From dental cleaning to root canals, tooth extractions, fillings and preparation for dentures, many WTFC patients are experiencing oral health care for the first time in their adult lives.

“Our patients are so appreciative of having dental care at WTFC,” Knight said. “We know it’s a service that helps our patients’ overall health, but it also helps them regain their confidence and improves their quality of life.