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ARLINGTON — For many patients in Bennington County, finding a dentist who is accepting new patients can prove challenging.

To address that need, Battenkill Valley Health Center hopes to attract new dental care providers to the area long-term following the opening of their new dental practice this May. A newly announced partnership with the University of New England College of Dental Medicine is the first step in that process, according to BVHC CEO Grace Gilbert-Davis.

"We knew from the beginning when we opened the dental clinic that it would be a teaching program," said Gilbert-Davis.

"It's done primarily to bring students into rural communities like Southern Vermont, Arlington in particular, in hopes that while they're here they also will connect with the community."

The practice will continue to welcome three students per year, who will learn how to provide care for diverse patient populations, attain real-world experience, witness firsthand the need for greater access to oral health care in Northern New England, and experience the importance of social responsibility and leadership as a dental professional.

"For patients, it will allow more same day care," said BVHC's Dr. Stephen Phillips. "If my schedule is full, he'll be able to see emergencies same day. It's amazing to me that the oral surgeons in Bennington often have wait times up to three weeks."

"We're very excited, and we see this as the first step of bringing many individuals into our community," said Gilbert-Davis. "It is really hard to recruit dentists and primary care providers to Vermont period. If they do come to Vermont, they want to go to Chittenden county."

Phillips has long planned to retire in Arlington, and through the externship program BVHC hopes to attract new dentists to their practice in the future.

"We are looking for younger providers, both dental and medical, who want to buy a home here, raise their children here, and help grow Arlington," said Gilbert-Davis. "If not us, then perhaps Manchester or Bennington."

"In Bennington County, there will be expanded access to care long term whether we're recruiting to this facility or other facilities," said Kayla Davis, Director of Community Relations and Development for BVHC. "We're hoping for almost a community-wide succession plan."

That plan will begin on Sept. 18, when UNE dental student Nicholas Guy will begin his externship under the supervision of Phillips, who is also an adjunct assistant professor in the College of Dental Medicine.

"We're allowing a senior dental student to see what it's like in the real world," said Phillips. "Dental school is a sheltered experience, but this is the real deal."

This community-based externship is designed to introduce students to clinical practice in areas with limited access to health care, like Bennington county.

"In a rural rotation, you see mouths that you would otherwise not see in a more metropolitan area," said Gilbert-Davis.

"Some Vermonters are brought up to neglect their teeth; the kids have bad teeth, and the parents have really bad teeth," said Phillips. "There's a percentage that thinks it's normal to let their teeth go until they're so bad, and then they just pull them all and get dentures because that's probably what their parents did."

"Dental becomes the last thing on your list of priorities when you are paying your mortgage, or your car breaks down, or you lose your job," added Davis.

Recently, the dental staff at BVHC became the second dental practice in Bennington County to be certified through the Vermont Department of Health to provide preventive dental care services to children starting at age one. The center hopes that creating an early and positive relationship between children and their dentist can encourage lifelong oral health.

"We're also developing a program that goes into the community in both schools and day cares, as well as local businesses," said Davis. "We'll do screening for oral abnormalities, but there will also be a lot of educational materials to go along with that."

"We are excited to be able to serve the people of Bennington County in a meaningful way, providing a service that so many are in need of," said Phillips. "Partnering with UNE is just one way we can expand access to the services we provide."

Reach Cherise Madigan at 802-490-6471.

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