Spotlight On: Philip Wenk, CEO, Delta Dental of Tennessee

Spotlight On: Philip Wenk, CEO, Delta Dental of Tennessee

2022-09-15T13:30:27-04:00September 15th, 2022|Healthcare & Life Sciences, Nashville, Spotlight On|

2 min read September 2022 Delta Dental of Tennessee is a dental health benefits company deeply committed toward improving the overall wellness of people through products, advocacy, education and philanthropy including giving back to the communities throughout the state of Tennessee. Invest: spoke with the CEO of Delta Dental of Tennessee, Philip Wenk, about the challenges of accessibility to dental healthcare in rural areas, the demand for dental plans and Delta Dental of Tennessee’s key partnerships. 

How does the leadership in Nashville speak to connectedness in Middle Tennessee and statewide community involvement?

The state of Tennessee is coming together more and there’s a very cooperative spirit these days. For example, Delta Dental of Tennessee is currently working towards opening up a free and reduced-cost dental clinic in Kingsport, Tennessee, with the help of dental experts across the state. There are many things that work together. I moved here in 1997, and the difference in this city is absolutely astounding. There were some truly great leaders involved in making these changes. Take Steve Turner from the Turner Family, for instance. His vision took a run-down area of the city and connected it to downtown creating the amazing Gulch area. 

The continued growth of Nashville is incredible. The city is extremely resilient and has been in such a growth phase for over 20 years. This growth didn’t stop even through recession problems in 1998 and 2008. It just kept on going, bringing in new companies and industries. I spend time in other cities in Tennessee and no other city here has done what we’ve done. It’s beyond imagining, though certainly not without its challenges. Nashville is a hub city under all circumstances. The transportation network throughout the city and Middle Tennessee is very strong, but the future of Nashville means the city will outgrow its current support structures and redefine education. It takes time, but it will happen.

What are you seeing in terms of the dental workforce shortage?

The young people coming out of dental schools in metropolitan areas are so deeply in debt that they often go to work for corporate dentistry or dental service organizations (DSOs) just to afford paying their bills. These organizations hire people right out of school, and we’re going to see more of a shift towards DSOs, not just in Nashville, but across the country. Historically, dentists have always been individual practitioners. When a dentist was ready to retire, their son or daughter came in to replace them. That’s not so much the case anymore. If a son or daughter doesn’t want to practice dentistry, the dentist either sells out to a DSO or moves their business over to a DSO. It’s more an evolutionary matter driven by economics. Dental practices are very expensive to set up and to maintain. There’s little shortage per se in Nashville and the surrounding area unless you get into the inner city where it’s more challenging. There are two excellent reduced-cost dental clinics here in the city and more in the surrounding counties that handle those kinds of situations and are heavily supported by Delta Dental.

The rural areas of the state are another story. It’s hard for a young person with massive debt to go to work at a rural, usually less affluent, location where they may or may not be able to pay their bills or start a practice. The allure of a vibrant metropolitan area makes it difficult to ask young people to go to a rural area and set up shop versus coming to a place like Nashville and being able to experience all the different things this city has to offer.  

How have you seen the accessibility of dentists for people living in rural areas being addressed?

The rural areas are certainly the underserved areas. We have four counties in the state that don’t even have dentists. It’s not only a challenge for people wanting to go into dentistry to choose to go to those less populated areas, but it’s also a challenge to get primary care physicians to go there. Any county in any state where this problem exists, there’s also the same challenge for dentistry, nursing and mental healthcare. The former commissioner for the State of Tennessee’s Department of Health, along with a group of engaged people, was a strong advocate for the oral health needs of Tennesseans, and the state passed funding for year one of a five-year pilot program that totaled $94 million in non-recurring funding to address the rural healthcare shortage.

Has Delta Dental of Tennessee seen a change in demand for dental plans?

We sold the largest number of dental contracts last year that we’ve ever sold in the history of the company. We grew by about 130,000 primary subscribers. We’re able to create a great deal of savings for them with our networks, and that’s incredibly significant. Our prominent advertising also targets customers who will benefit most from our products. We also have a contract with VSP, the largest vision care provider, to offer DeltaVision plans in Tennessee. Vision plans are a very inexpensive addition to dental that provides people the opportunity to get their eyes checked as well as allowances for contacts and glasses. What will also evolve with time will be a more preventive and cosmetic approach. If we don’t do what we can do to remind people of the need to take care of their dental health, then we fall short of our responsibility as a healthcare provider.

What are some of Delta Dental of Tennessee’s key partnerships?

We created Delta Dental of Tennessee’s Smile180 Foundation from our reserve fund several years ago. This foundation focuses on three pillars of support: dental education, children’s hospitals, free and reduced-cost dental clinics. We’re the largest single supporter of the two dental schools in Tennessee. The Delta Dental building will open next year in Memphis as the University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Dentistry’s main training facility. Our second priority is children’s hospitals. We sponsor and support funding for every children’s hospital in this state, and all but one has a dental facility on premises that we funded. We also partnered with Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital and sponsored a fellowship to support their Cleft and Craniofacial Program. 

Our Smile180 Foundation supports 26 free and reduced-cost dental clinics. We provide funding for operations and each one has new dental office equipment. We’re excited about creating more opportunities going forward. We have ongoing commitments and our board is very supportive. They’re more than willing to give away about 35-40% of our yearly net earnings to charities of this type.

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