The Ben Massell Dental Clinic has cared for metro Atlanta’s neediest residents for 100 years now. Dr. Richard Weinman has been treating patients with little or no income at the clinic for almost 40 of those years. Weinman was a brand new dentist looking for some experience when he first started volunteering at the clinic in 1977. Today, he has a thriving Buckhead practice but continues to volunteer at the clinic once a month to keep himself grounded. Also a member of the clinic’s board, Weinman talked with the AJC about both the advances the clinic has made, including a state-of-the art facility on 14th Street in Atlanta that offers the most-up-to date treatment, as well as the growing need for its services.
Q: How did you get involved with the clinic?
A: When I started practicing, I worked with my uncle, who started his dental practice before World War II. He said the clinic was a good place to work on my skills and get more confidence. It is also one of the best ways that I could give back. As a dentist, I have the ability to relieve pain.
Q: Is the clinic meeting the need?
A: Unfortunately, we are woefully short on adult services in the state. A few dental clinics like Massell offer services but we are just scratching the surface. We have a waiting list of more than a year for patients who need dentures. The greater the need, the more money the clinic needs.
Q: Where does your money come from?
A: There is a suggested donation for patients but some can’t afford to pay. Jewish Family & Career Services is our parent group and has grant writers who help us. We regularly get money from United Way and other foundations and there are dental groups that may give. We look for any and all sources, big and small. Because the clinic can document how many patients we see and the services we offer, people know they are getting a bang for their buck.
Q: Who works at the clinic?
A: There is a director, hygienists and a staff of front desk dental assistants. More than 140 dentists volunteer their time. We have some dentists who volunteer every week or every two weeks. Augusta University (formerly Georgia Regents University) sends dental students. We also have four dental residents who split their time between working at Grady Hospital and the clinic.
Q: Does the clinic offer services other than dentistry?
A: We have a social worker on staff and we work with other providers offering primary care and eye care. We are trying to lift people out of the cycle of poverty. Our clinic cannot be someone’s dental home for life because there are so many people in need.
Q: Has working at the clinic made you a better dentist?
A: It has made me more understanding of the plight of people who aren’t receiving care. I get a lot of thanks and hugs from the patients. I know I am providing a real service and that is a big reward.
Q: Why are teeth important?
A: Oral health affects general health. We now know that with gum disease and dental disease come higher incidents of diabetes, stroke and heart attack. Then there is pain and suffering. No one deserves to have a level of discomfort and not be able to find care. The third aspect is that people can’t get the most basic job if their teeth are broken or rotting or missing. Sometimes the only thing holding people back is their teeth and sense of self-worth. I can think of few things sadder than not being able to smile at somebody.
The Sunday Conversation is edited for length and clarity. Writer Ann Hardie can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.