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A.T. Still University teams up with Grace Hill to expand dental care

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - A big challenge in health care is finding innovative ways to address the shortage of health practitioners to serve the needy. A.T. Still University of Health Sciences in Kirksville, Mo., is focusing on the need to train more dentists who might serve patients in poor, rural communities in Missouri.

The university hopes to address the problem through a unique partnership in its new dental school. Students will get part of their training on the Kirksville campus and another part in a clinic that will be built in St. Louis and managed by Grace Hill Neighborhood Health Centers.

The $23 million, 85-chair clinic is expected to be built near the old City Hospital. Still’s first dental school class has 42 students.

Joe Pierle, CEO of the Missouri Primary Care Association, says the new program is welcome given the shortage of dentists, especially for underserved patients. In 2007, the average number of dentists was 6 to 10,000 people nationally. The ratio in Missouri was 4.8 dentists to 10,000 people, according to a report on oral health in Missouri, financed by several groups, including the Missouri Foundation for Health and the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City. The ratio fell to 2.9 to 10,000 outside of metropolitan areas in Missouri. 

The arrangement between a dental school in Kirkskville and an inner city health clinic is the first of its kind, says the school’s inaugural dean, Dr. Christopher G. Halliday, a former assistant surgeon general.

“It’s innovative in that dental students will do all of their training with underserved and otherwise disadvantaged population groups,” he says. “Their third year will be spent at the facility in St. Louis. During the fourth year, they will perform clinical rotations at additional community health center sites around the state.”

An estimated 11,500 additional patients are expected to be served by Grace Hill and other community health centers across Missouri through the partnership, according to school officials. They say the Missouri Foundation for Health provided the university with $3 million to develop the program and that the Missouri Primary Care Association assisted in setting up the  partnership.

Halliday says Grace Hill is a good fit for this mission because of its strong history of serving the poor.  He says the clinic will also have an urgent care operation where a patient having an emergency, such as a severe tooth ache, can seek treatment.

“We are very excited about this partnership and also excited about the new dental school. We feel we are making a very strong and positive impact not only on oral health for people in Missouri” but on their overall health status as well.

The dental school will be only the second in Missouri. The other is at the University of Missouri at Kansas City.

Alan Freeman, president and CEO of Grace Hill, says the clinic not only will provide services but will generate as many as 80 new jobs in areas such as dental assistants, clerks and hygienists.

“For Missouri, which ranks in the lower 20 percent across the country in oral health status, this clinic is a valuable addition to the provision of oral health services to underserved populations across the state,” he said.

The new clinic, he says, will mean a major expansion of the 21 dental chairs already available at Grace Hill. He said other health centers also provide dental services. “But the need for dental care exceeds the supply” of dentists, he says.

Freeman says the dental clinic is expected to serve patients from throughout the St. Louis area, with patients ranging from the uninsured to those eligible for Medicaid and those with private insurance.

Asked why he thought Still selected Grace Hill as its partner, Freeman said, “Grace Hill is involved in a number of innovative strategies and we are pleased to participate in this groundbreaking activity. This is a remarkable initiative. It will be great for St. Louis and great for Missouri. Grace Hill feels privileged to be part of it.”


State by state report of primary care workforce shortage from the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Compendium of oral health information and strategies for increasing access to dental care.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.