Conversation With a Leader

Wednesday, October 12, 2005 at 1:00am

Rhonda Switzer is executive director of the Interfaith Dental Clinic, a nonprofit clinic serving low-income individuals. After graduating from dental school, the Canadian-born Switzer served as the head of dentistry at a fly-in health center in the sub-arctic in Churchill, Manitoba. Three years later, she moved to Bermuda and worked for that country's Department of Health. Switzer has been in Nashville since 1995 and since that time has led the Interfaith Dental Clinic, which is located in Midtown near Baptist Hospital. Switzer oversees 11 salaried employees and various volunteer dentists in a facility that will contain about 7,600 square feet following an impending expansion.

What are the clinic's current projects?

The clinic just launched a $1.2 million capital campaign to expand its facility and increase its ability to service 30 percent more patients a year. This is our second capital campaign in 10 years. We must continue this momentum in order to meet the public's growing need for affordable dental care. Currently, we have a five-month wait for an initial appointment. We hope our current expansion will reduce the wait dramatically.

What have been the pivotal factors for the clinic's steady growth throughout its history?

From the beginning, the clinic was filling an unmet need in our community. Low-income, working people were falling in the cracks between private practice and public health care. When our patients began to return to their workplaces, churches and neighborhoods with a new smile and better health, word spread like wildfire about the terrific services the Interfaith Dental Clinic provides. The support from the dental community has also been amazing. We wouldn't be where we are today without dentists' volunteer services and their financial donations.

What are Interfaith's sources of funding and revenue on an annual basis?

We receive about 29 percent of our revenue from patient fees and only 2 percent from the government. Right now, 10 percent of our funding is from United Way, and we raise the rest from generous individuals, foundations, companies and faith communities.

How do the recent TennCare dental care cutbacks affect your organization?

Since TennCare paid for only life-threatening adult dental needs, it affects our direct funding very little. However, we are expecting our patients who have been cut from TennCare to have less money to pay their co-pays for our services since those dollars now must cover prescriptions. The cutbacks will make dental care less of a priority and more of a luxury for those who need it the most.

How do you handle possible malpractice matters?

The state legislature recently passed a bill exempting medical industry volunteer employees from lawsuits. Now we're trying to see that dental professionals are covered under that legislation too. Dentists who volunteer to work with us must have their own malpractice insurance. So it is a risk for them. But in 11 years, we have never had a complaint, much less a lawsuit.

What is the state of the oral health of Tennesseans?

Very poor. Tennessee consistently gets a C- on its Oral Health Report Card due to the lack of services for low-income children and the elderly. In fact, 35 percent of all retired Tennesseans have lost every one of their natural teeth.

Filed under: City Business