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Rice dental clinic in Willmar, Minn., celebrates fifth year with grant of $175K

Local and University of Minnesota School of Dentistry officials were on hand for a reception Tuesday at Rice Memorial Hospital to celebrate the anniversary of the school’s clinic at Rice. The Delta Dental of Minnesota also announced a $175,000 grant to the clinic. Jeff Ogden, chief administrative officer at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, acts as emcee during the presentation. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR — The Rice Regional Dental Clinic celebrated its fifth anniversary Tuesday with news of a major gift: the awarding of a $175,000 grant from Delta Dental of Minnesota.

The money will help support the operational costs of the dental clinic, which serves as a training site for University of Minnesota dentistry and dental hygiene students and a source of dental care for low-income and underserved residents in west central Minnesota.

Officials from Delta Dental, the University of Minnesota and Rice Memorial Hospital gathered Tuesday for the grant announcement, followed by an open house and tours of the dental facility.

“It’s a good way to end the calendar year with this kind of success,” said Dean Elton Johnson, a Willmar pastor who also sits on the Board of Regents of the University of Minnesota.

When the Rice Regional Dental Clinic opened in 2007, it was a bit of an experiment, he said. “The experiment worked. It’s here to stay.”

In five years of operation, the program, operated as a partnership between the university and Rice Memorial Hospital, has amassed a series of accomplishments.

It was one of the first hospital-based dental training sites in the United States and remains the only one like it in Minnesota. It has the largest geographic reach — 17 counties — of any dental clinic in the university system. It has helped train dental therapists, a new category of mid-level dental professionals created by the Minnesota Legislature in 2009, and provided a training ground for new workforce models that include dental therapists.

Patient volume has far exceeded the anticipations of Rice Hospital and the University of Minnesota.

To date the clinic has seen nearly 7,000 patients and provided 79,000 dental services and procedures during nearly 34,000 clinic visits. Staffed by students and faculty, it’s running at nearly 100 percent capacity, officials said.

The vast majority of clients are on public programs such as Medical Assistance or MinnesotaCare and have difficulty finding any other dentist who will see them.

There’s a great demand for dentists in rural Minnesota but an even greater need for dentists who can take these patients, said Mike Schramm, chief executive of Rice Hospital.

“The Rice Regional Dental Clinic is able to meet both these unique challenges,” he said.

Students who train here are gaining not only valuable hands-on experience but are seeing firsthand what it’s like to be in a rural community, Johnson said.

“They live here. They eat at Frieda’s,” he said. “They see what rural life is like. Our hope is some will in fact practice upon graduation in a rural area.”

Funding remains one of the largest challenges for the program. Although the dental clinic receives ongoing revenue from providing services to patients, it also relies on Rice Hospital, the University of Minnesota and donors to support its operating costs.

The grant from Delta Dental is one of several from the organization over the past five years. Delta Dental has contributed $625,000 in all, making it the Rice Regional Dental Clinic’s largest nonprofit sponsor.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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