A Powerful Partnership

Two free clinics providing care to the most vulnerable populations

Both over 100 years old, the Ben Massell Dental Clinic and Grady Health Systems are two of the oldest medical institutions in Atlanta. Both are committed to providing the highest quality services to their patients and expanding access to care to the most vulnerable parts of the population. Building on these shared values, the two institutions developed a unique partnership to further their mission – connecting the free Ben Massell Dental Clinic with the free Oral Health Center of Grady’s Ponce Program, a dental clinic for HIV positive patients started by Dr. David Reznik. Through a shared dental residency program, dental residents work in both clinics to expand access to care in low-income and HIV positive populations while gaining valuable clinical experience.

For Dr. Reznik, the drive to increase access to care comes from a lifelong commitment to serving patients with HIV. Beginning in the mid 1980’s, the stigma against HIV was rampant, with many doctors and dentists refusing to treat HIV positive patients. Dr. Reznik continued to see his patients who were HIV positive, and once word got around that he was willing to treat, his office became a refuge for patients who couldn’t receive care anywhere else. Soon, AID Atlanta, a comprehensive AIDS service organization, asked him if he could take on several of their patients on a sliding scale fee basis. Dr. Reznik took on those patients for free, and by 1988, almost half of his client base was HIV positive patients.

From there, Dr. Reznik began a five-year mission to expand on this work and create a free dental clinic for HIV positive patients. He connected with the then-named Grady Health System's Infectious Disease Program, a comprehensive health center offering primary medical care, a women family and children clinic, outpatient oncology, case management, access to antiretroviral therapy, and mental health and substance abuse care to patients living with HIV. The Oral Health Center was added in 1993, where it has been serving patients under Dr. Reznik’s supervision for thirty-plus years.

The partnership with Ben Massell Dental Clinic (BMDC) was later born out of a conversation on how to further increase access to care for vulnerable populations. A former Secretary of Health and Human Services and former Surgeon General hosted the meeting, searching for solutions to solve the unmet need for oral health services. There, Dr. Reznik met and collaborated with Keith Kirshner, the Director of BMDC at the time, to establish a shared residency program in which residents from NYU Langone's Graduate Dental Education Advance Education in General Dentistry (AEGD) program would work at the two clinics for one year. Both free clinics had tremendous unmet need and long wait times for their patients, and adding new dentists to the staff went a long way towards increasing the number of patients that could be seen at the clinics.

Both BMDC and the Oral Health Center offer state-of-the-art technology to their residents, ensuring patients get the highest quality care and residents gain valuable experience working with new technology in the field. Each clinic provides comprehensive oral healthcare including root canals, crowns, implants, partials, dentures, and preventative care at no cost to their patients. Speaking on the value of this residency program at these free clinics, Dr. Reznik says “We are training the next generation on how to manage medically complex patients, which is important as our population gets older.”

The two clinics do differ in their operations. BMDC is operated completely by volunteer dentists, while the Oral Health Center has several dentists on staff. The volunteers at BMDC become adjunct professors at the NYU Langone school, qualifying them to teach the residents. BMDC also hosts dental students in their fourth year at the Dental College of Georgia.

Current residents in the program, Dr. Shelton, Dr. Gervais, and Dr. Elezye, shared the benefits they receive from the two different clinic models, working at both the Grady and Ben Massell Dental Clinics. Working with many different dentists who volunteer at BMDC, they learn multiple techniques for one procedure and can decide which technique best fits the specific patient’s problem. At the Grady clinic, they benefit from consistent staff members' supervision. Dr. Shelton shares of the Grady clinic, “Knowing that you’re dealing with a population, with people who are HIV+, that have not-great immune function - they are more predisposed to other things. So you are more cognizant of treating the whole person, not just the tooth…This is my job as a healthcare provider.”

At both clinics, the residents gain unique problem-solving abilities from working with vulnerable populations. “Just learning to be creative and learning to think outside the box a little bit,” says Dr. Shelton. "People come in with pretty big needs and sometimes you’re not able to use traditional approaches…They have really offered everything that I’ve wanted to do that I wasn’t getting in dental school.”

Speaking on her experience, Dr. Elezye says of the two clinics, "Being a resident at Grady and Ben Massell has been nothing short of a truly rewarding and fulfilling experience. The best qualities of Grady is their family oriented environment, heavy focus on comprehensive care and treatment planning, and their knowledge of medical complications and complexities. Ben Massell's clinic has a strong and efficient team who knows how to relate to patients in a meaningful way that allows us as health providers to carry out the best treatment to our patients there."

At BMDC and Grady, residents gain a new appreciation for community service and working with vulnerable populations. Many former residents return to volunteer at Ben Massell Dental Clinic and others join special projects at Grady. Many of the volunteers at BMDC enjoy passing on their knowledge and educating the next generation of dentists, sharing their passion of giving back with the students. "The fact that there are dozens of volunteers who dedicate their time to helping at Ben Massell is a small example of how many people believe in the mission and vision of Ben Massell," shares Dr. Elezye.

Through the incredible work of Dr. Reznik, the Grady clinic, and the Ben Massell Dental Clinic, thousands of patients are able to receive comprehensive oral healthcare at no cost to them. For many, these free clinics are the only place in the city where they can receive services free of judgment, with compassion and care.