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Dentist who established clinic for Phoenix homeless is honored

Dentist who established clinic for Phoenix homeless is honored
Dr. Volcheck: His clinic model uses a group of volunteers that serves as "a powerful force to help the homeless."

Phoenix—When he was new dentist, Dr. Kris Volcheck said he enjoyed private practice dentistry and loved his patients.

"But I wanted more," he said. "I wanted to use my D.D.S. outside the operatory, too."

His new career—founding and running a homeless shelter dental clinic that treats thousands of patients each year—has earned him a 2010 Community Health Leader Award from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Dr. Volcheck is one of 10 winners this year. He received the award at a ceremony Aug. 12 in Princeton, N.J. Since the RWJ Foundation established this award in 1993, 188 individuals have been honored, and Dr. Volcheck is the fifth dentist to receive the award.

After working in private practice for 10 years, Dr. Volcheck headed back to school to earn an M.B.A. He began volunteering at a homeless shelter to fill in some spare time during the evenings and weekends.

"I went there to hand out food and clothing, and I thought, 'this is cool. I can do this while I'm looking for a new career.' I felt comfortable. I really enjoyed myself."

Central Arizona Shelter Services, he said, serves homeless men and women, providing comprehensive services to help them transition back into life.

"Of course, I noticed that the clients were all in desperate need of dental care, but the shelter didn't offer it because it was so cost prohibitive," Dr. Volcheck said. "It didn’t even occur to me at first that this was my path. I didn't know anything about nonprofit dentistry, but it finally dawned on me what a big need there was."

After looking at the practice models of other nonprofit clinics and talking with volunteers, Dr. Volcheck opened a small clinic in 2001, and volunteer dental professionals provided care, local dental labs donated services and dental supply companies donated equipment and sold him supplies at a deep discount.

Dr. Volcheck, seated, reviews a case in the CASS dental clinic
Showroom clinic: Dr. Volcheck, seated, reviews a case in the CASS dental clinic. Three dental companies equipped the clinic and use it as a working showroom for their products.
"I was very afraid of failure," he admitted. "But I went forward. We started off with 20 volunteers and a little two-chair trailer in 2001 and immediately started making plans to expand."

The CASS campus, he said, was expanding and he had a vision to expand dental services as well. Today, the program has hundreds of volunteers—dentists, hygienists, assistants—and offers comprehensive dental care services to about 6,000 patients a year. Thinking outside the box to equip an eight-operatory clinic with state-of-the-art technology, he offered three national dental supply companies the opportunity not only to donate but to consider the clinic a "showroom" featuring their latest dental equipment.

"I knew I couldn't go to one company and ask them to donate eight chairs with all the equipment to go with them," he said, "so I made a pitch to three companies and offered to let them bring customers to the clinic and use it as a showroom to showcase their latest products."

The clinic also receives generous in-kind support from many in-state and out-of-state dental laboratories for crown and bridge and denture work and receives deep discounts on supplies from local companies.

One reason the innovative model works, he said, is because he got to know the shelter's clients—not as a dentist—but as a volunteer who understood their needs and the barriers that kept them from good oral health status.

"I've worked in the dental clinic for 10 years, but I've volunteered there for 17," he said. "Volunteering as a lay person helped tremendously. I got to know the clients and their specific needs. Quality dental care is absolutely essential, but there are so many issues that affect treatment planning for homeless patients. They need a stable environment or their hygiene is not going to be good enough for them to have extensive treatment. With most of them, we start with pain and infection control and move into more comprehensive treatments as the homeless client progresses in their quest to become ex-homeless."

Dr. Volcheck does all the treatment planning for the clinic, but volunteer dentists, both general dentists and specialists, provide the treatment as he spends 45 to 50 hours a week administrating.

"I coordinate all the volunteers. Some volunteer once a year. Some are at the clinic three days a week. But I get to know them and help them get comfortable with the clinic and the staff. I also socialize with my volunteers. They quickly become part of our network of friends and family."

He says socializing is one of his biggest responsibilities and one reason why the clinic has been successful.

"I didn’t know this when I first started volunteering, but the main reason people volunteer is to socialize, to be a part of their community," he said. "We have a tight community here. We keep growing and now we have several hundred volunteers. We are able to offer our patients everything, from implants to veneers to plastic surgery for domestic violence victims. This group of volunteers is a powerful force to help the homeless."

Dental students from the A.T. Still Arizona School of Dentistry and Oral Health and volunteer students from local dental hygiene and assisting programs do rotations in the clinic and more than 100 dental labs in Arizona and 15 other states donate denture and crown and bridge work for CASS patients.

His latest venture is establishing a school-based dental clinic for children in one of Phoenix's poorest school districts. The clinic provides comprehensive preventive care and treatment to 2,200 children, seeing them every three months for regular cleanings.

The Community Health Leaders Award each year honors 10 individuals who have overcome daunting odds to improve the health and quality of life for those living in disadvantaged communities across the United States, according to the RWJ Foundation website. "The efforts of these 10 Community Health Leaders highlight the unmet need for access to quality affordable health services. Their work demonstrates the immense difference one person can make."

Leaders each receive $125,000 to support their ongoing work, as well as opportunities to network and collaborate with other leaders from around the country.

"I feel that I am quite lucky," he said. "I came here to help the homeless and they are the ones who ultimately helped me lead a much fuller life."