Meeting a new patient in 2017, Burch—then clinical assistant professor at the School of Dentistry’s Department of Pediatric Dentistry—confirmed his suspicions.
“A patient had cerebral palsy and had to be treated in her wheelchair, but no private practices would do it,” he said. “Her mother was crying because she had been bouncing around dental offices for 10 years trying to find someone to clean her daughter’s teeth. I cleaned them and realized at that moment that it was our dental school’s responsibility to educate students on special care patients as a safety net for the Dallas-Fort Worth area.”
Burch was right. Research later proved that only five of Dallas’ 3,000 dentists serve this population, and the majority only accept private insurance. “There are about 300,000 people in this area with special needs, however, and less than 5% of them have private insurance,” Burch noted.
Armed with this knowledge, he got to work. “I presented my cause to my department in 2018 after the school underwent reaccreditation. The Commission on Dental Accreditation was working on a similar accreditation initiative knowing it would be a future concern.” The dean assembled a team and asked Burch to find a way to educate students on how to treat special care patients. With a grant from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, a new special care dentistry fellowship pilot program was born in 2020.
Aggies Set the Standard
Today’s fellowship meets a growing need for children, 99% of whom are Medicaid patients. Dr. Burch, two fellows and a small group of full-time employees rotate to various children’s hospitals and clinics because they lack a dedicated patient space. Dr. Lianna Pulliam ’21, a fellow, spends 80-90% of her time with special care patients. “I’ve learned how to treat patients in the most accommodating workspaces and those that offer the bare minimum,” she shared.
To achieve maximum impact, this program needs a central clinic, more staff and a curriculum to educate all Texas A&M dental students, growing an awareness of the need and practitioners to fill it. The Crystal Charity Ball—a nonprofit established in 1952 to aid children’s charities in Dallas County—recently committed to working alongside the dental school to raise $1.6 million. A generous donation from the Hillcrest Foundation will join these funds to help the program in its goal to become self-sustaining in three years and exceed 6,000 annual patient visits—a 33% increase in oral health care for children who have special needs.