Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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In 1998, Northwestern’s Dental School employed 229 faculty members, taught 307 students and provided more than 68,000 elderly, indigent and HIV-positive patients with low-cost dental care.

That year, citing millions of dollars in operating losses, administrators announced they would close the school within three years.

Since then, the students have graduated, the faculty have departed, and those 68,000 patients remain without options for low-cost dental care.

But the city’s lone remaining dental school at the University of Illinois-Chicago recently has started a massive reorganization project in order to better serve some of NU’s former patients. With nine former NU Dental faculty members on board to help UIC expand its clinical program, UIC College of Dentistry Dean Bruce Graham said he thinks the school will able to meet the increased patient demand by fall.

Though NU Dental administrators and faculty have moved forward with their careers, some, such as former Dean Lee Jameson, said they remain tied to the oral health of their past clinical patients.

“Those patients have been the silent group with no voice,” said Jameson, who now works at his private dental practice in Palos Heights, a suburb of south Chicago. “You don’t hear from them. We don’t know how to track if they went to any of UIC’s clinics. Our clinic provided the only means of oral health to some of those families. We were doing a great community service, and it’s a shame we had to close it down.”

Access to care concerns

The school particularly served the underrepresented portions of the population through care programs for HIV-positive patients and members of the Boys and Girls Club, as well as the Donna Olsen Saturday Morning People’s Clinic, which allowed poorer residents access to dental care for an annual fee of $20.

UIC is trying to make sure all three programs live on through those offered at its clinics.

UIC has increased its ability to provide dental care to more HIV-positive patients through its Ryan White Clinic, said Mario Alves, director of the clinic.

The clinic offers affordable care to patients such as Abdi Warsama, a 54-year-old Somalian refugee.

After being exiled from his homeland during the nation’s bloody civil war and going nearly a decade without dental care, Warsama’s teeth are in bad shape. On Thursday morning, Alves tried to salvage what he could, extracting the worst of the lot and lecturing Warsama on how to keep the rest healthy.

Alves said about 10 percent of the clinic’s new patients throughout the last year have come from NU, an average of about 5 or 6 per month. While NU officials may have recommended UIC’s clinic to the patients, they never transferred patient records, Alves said.

“They closed down without giving us past records, charts or documents,” he said. “We didn’t get anything. The data would have been useful to know these patients’ history.”

The decision to shut down the Dental School had an instant effect on the Chicago community. Because the closing of NU’s dental clinic left only UIC’s facilities to offer affordable dental care to indigent patients, members of the dental community are concerned that Chicago’s demand for dentists soon will exceed the supply.

According to Larry Salzmann, director of the predoctoral program at UIC’s pediatric dentistry department, new patients at UIC now have to wait about 4 months for an initial screening and more than 6 months for an appointment, though the clinic tries to accommodate emergency patients as soon as possible.

Randall Grove, president of the Chicago Dental Society, said his organization has tried to assist in providing support to UIC’s program, but the clinics need more help.

“The lack of care is definitely an extreme concern,” Grove said. “UIC should be applauded for their effort to reach out to the community and provide services to as many groups as they can.”

But Grove said NU’s closing complicated an already precarious situation.

“It’s just unfortunate that the school is not around to provide contributions to research as well as take care of the indigent,” he said.

Graham said UIC’s clinic is the only federally funded facility that continues to see HIV-positive patients even when grants run out.

“We don’t turn anybody away,” he said.

UIC also agreed to take over NU’s Boys and Girls Club program and currently is renovating the clinic, which provides affordable dental care to children. Grants from Procter & Gamble and the Chicago Dental Society will help the school run the clinic, Graham said.

A School in flux

Jameson is thankful that UIC agreed to take over some of NU’s programs, but he said he wished more could have been done to save the Saturday morning clinic.

Graham said the school is in the process of changing its infrastructure to better provide access to service for its patients, some of whom previously attended NU’s Saturday morning clinic. After Sept. 1, when the changes are complete, UIC’s dental school will be run more like a dental office and less like a clinic, he said.

“The changes we are making in our clinical operations will meet the demand for free dental care,” he said. “We think the (Saturday morning clinic) was wonderful, but we think we can offer something like it five days per week.”

But even with UIC’s increased efforts, Frank Perry, another former NU faculty member who now serves as a clinical professor in UIC’s restorative dentistry department, called NU’s closing and the current care problems a concern for the entire state of Illinois. Southern Illinois University’s dental program, the only remaining dental school in the state besides UIC, is small, he said, and many graduates end up working in states on Illinois’ southern border.

“Losing one school was a major, major blow,” Perry said.

Bitterness remains

One year after the closing, the former faculty still question the decision of University President Henry Bienen and NU’s Board of Trustees to shut down the school. Closing the Dental School came down to the issue of economics, administrators said. According to NU’s financial report, the Dental School lost $20.8 million in the 1998 fiscal year, including the costs of implementing the closing plan.

Bienen said it will take an additional five to seven years to make up for the monetary losses accumulated during the closing but that the university is prepared to take a hit in the short-run to benefit down the road.

“The money will be recovered because the dental school ran a deficit and the oral health clinic also was running a deficit,” Bienen said in an April 25 interview. “Now, since those deficits have stopped, we know we’ll get that money back over time.”

Some former NU faculty members at UIC aren’t sympathetic to the administration’s financial difficulty. When told that administrators still are losing money one year after the closing, Salzmann, rolled his eyes.

“Poor babies,” he said.

After NU’s closing, UIC’s College of Dentistry became the only dental education program in the Chicago area. Graham, UIC’s dean, said the school realizes the challenge it faces in having to provide care to a significant portion to the city’s population. The addition of the former NU faculty members, bringing the total faculty at the school to close to 75, has been a blessing during the upheaval, he said.

“We are delighted to have these people. They are outstanding teachers and outstanding researchers as well,” Graham said. “By in large, they waited until (the closing last) May to make their decisions. We wanted to make sure we didn’t compromise the education of the last NU students. But since they have joined us, they’ve been a tremendous addition.”

Though the new UIC faculty members appreciate the opportunity to remain in dental education in Chicago, some, such as Jim Ricker, who worked at NU for 28 years, said there has been an adjustment process.

“The (Dental School) closing was very painful,” said Ricker, a clinical assistant professor at UIC’s restorative dentistry department. “This adjustment has been slow since all I ever knew was from my NU experi
ence.”

The UIC faculty members believe NU administrators could have tried harder to keep the Dental School alive, pointing to the recent $75 million donation to rename NU’s Medical School as well as the $1.3 billion raised through Campaign Northwestern.

“The NU administrators were uninformed and didn’t care about getting us any similar funds,” said Ulana Cirincione, who works at Kennedy-King College’s dental hygiene program, affiliated with UIC’s school.

Other former faculty members were more blunt in criticizing the administration’s decision.

“The central administration has no idea what they have done by closing one of the most respected and prestigious dental schools in the country,” Ricker said.

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Chicago dental clinic fills demand in NU’s absence