Delta Dental's Dr. Phil Wenk Keeps Focus on Healthy Communities
A smile is a magical gift. It can offer a warm welcome, ease tensions and banish shyness. Poor oral health, however, can do much more than just extinguish that magic ... it can also signal much deeper health issues.
"If you have lagging oral health, it will affect the entire health of your body," stated Phil Wenk, DDS, president and CEO of Delta Dental of Tennessee. Wenk added dentists can detect 120 signs and symptoms of diseases exhibited in or around the mouth. These conditions range from diabetes and heart disease to oral cancers and leukemia.
Wenk, who hails from the East Tennessee town of Clinton, spent 20 years in clinical practice before joining Delta Dental in 1997 as chief operating officer. Three years later, he was named to his current role overseeing the large Nashville-based nonprofit dental benefits organization. The Tennessee affiliate is one of 39 independent member companies associated with the national nonprofit network Delta Dental Plans Association.
Growing up, Wenk had a front row seat to dentistry as he observed both his father and uncle in practice. Still, he was torn between medicine and dentistry as he began his undergraduate studies in Knoxville at the University of Tennessee. Majoring in zoology with minors in chemistry and psychology, Wenk earned his degree in 1973 and headed straight to Memphis to pursue his graduate education.
While still in undergrad, Wenk met and married his wife Brenda, a speech pathologist. "We actually met at UT in a love and marriage class," he said with a laugh, adding it earned him more than just a social science credit. Once settled in Memphis, Brenda went to work with the city's school system while Wenk took a year off to earn money by working at Methodist Hospital.
Ultimately, he decided to follow in his father's footsteps and started dental school in June 1974. "At that time, dental school was three years. It was a very similar curriculum to today, but it was crammed into three years instead of four, which made for a very busy time," he recalled.
Finishing dental school in 1977, the young couple returned to East Tennessee where Wenk joined his father's practice. Not only did he enjoy the clinical aspects of his work, Wenk found that he loved being part of the Clinton community after having been gone for seven years.
"I think I did a good job as a restorative dentist, but I think the most rewarding part was connecting with people," he said. "I enjoyed being immersed in the community," he added of taking on numerous roles including serving on the city council, as chairman of the local school board, and as announcer for Clinton High School football and basketball games.
Two decades into his practice, Wenk developed a significant neck and back issue. A benign tumor spanning the C2 through C6 vertebrae required a nearly 12-hour surgery. "It's tough to be a dentist without bending your neck a lot," noted Wenk. "It became increasingly more painful to practice."
When the opportunity came up to join Delta Dental of Tennessee, it gave Wenk a way to continue to impact oral health but on a much broader stage. "Delta Dental as an association is the oldest dental insurance company there is," he said. Wenk added the American Dental Association launched the organization six decades ago on the East Coast and West Coast to serve union workers but soon expanded to other states. Delta Dental of Tennessee debuted 52 years ago.
Although the ADA is no longer involved, the plans have continued to flourish and now have a 33.1 percent market share nationwide, according to data published in January from IBIS Associates. "We're the largest player in the game," Wenk noted. In Tennessee, the organization counted more than 1.8 million people as members at the end of 2016.
In addition to providing access to oral healthcare providers, Delta Dental of Tennessee has earned a well-deserved reputation for generosity in communities across the state. In 2014, they formalized their philanthropic strategy and giving priorities to create the Smile180 Foundation. Last year, the organization gave away 75 percent of net revenues to support communities across the state.
"Our foundation is basically portioned into three different buckets," Wenk explained. "The first one is we've always been a big supporter of the two dental schools in Tennessee. That is your first line of treatment and your first line of education for oral health," he said. "The second one is charitable clinics, and the third is children's hospitals."
Delta Dental of Tennessee has been instrumental at Meharry School of Dentistry in building the simulation lab and in providing funding for the diagnostic center and multiple student scholarships. "We just agreed to be a primary sponsor of their restorative lab," Wenk added.
In Memphis, he continued, "We are the largest single monetary supporter of the UT College of Dentistry." Following a recent $6.6 million donation, ground will soon be broken on a new building that will bear the Delta Dental of Tennessee name.
In addition to aiding the dental schools, Smile180 also backs the broader concept of education, including support of organizations like Books from Birth. "If you've got an educated population, you've got a healthy population," Wenk pointed out.
The foundation's second focus is on assisting dental clinics that serve the uninsured and underinsured, including the Interfaith Dental Clinic in Nashville. There are now more than 25 such clinics across the state, but Wenk said there are still many gaps to be filled. Smile180 provides operational support and capital needs for independent clinics. For federally qualified clinics, such as those at Neighborhood Health, the foundation assists with equipment.
Wenk said providing oral care to those with limited means could have an impact on every aspect of life. "No one with their front teeth missing is going to interview well," he pointed out of donating digital x-ray equipment to open the door to options besides just extraction.
The third bucket is focused on funding clinics at pediatric hospitals. "We've built an ambulatory dental clinic at every children's hospital in Tennessee if there is room," he said. These clinics allow pediatric dentists to serve patients and to bring in children with mental or physical challenges. "Our future is always our children so we're going to contribute to our future," he stated.
Wenk has been widely recognized and honored for his volunteer efforts both personally and professionally. "I get too much credit for what our staff and board do ... I'm just riding the pony," he said modestly.
In truth, Wenk is very hands-on when it comes to giving back. The community connections he enjoyed as a practicing dentist in Clinton are still a big part of his life as a CEO in Middle Tennessee. Wenk serves on numerous boards including Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Tennessee Performing Arts Center, and the University of Tennessee President's Council. "I'm a staunch supporter of the Vols in every way," he noted with a laugh. A big football fan, Wenk is also a past co-chair of the Franklin American Music City Bowl, where the Vols were the 2016 victors.
When he isn't busy at work or in the community, he and Brenda can be found enjoying their two grown children and three grandchildren who all live in the Nashville area. "They're close, which is great! But they aren't right next door ... which is great, too," Wenk concluded with a big smile.