Scranton native serves community by filling cavities – and gaps in dental workforce
A Scranton native, Dr. Caitlin McCarthy helped to establish a dental clinic at The Wright Center for Community Health Scranton Practice in the city’s South Side neighborhood. She currently treats patients there and helps to train and mentor dentists enrolled in a one-year residency program.
Dr. McCarthy trains new dentists to provide care in underserved areas like her beloved working-class hometown
To become a dentist, Dr. Caitlin McCarthy reluctantly left her family and native Northeast Pennsylvania community, devoting four years to a dental school in Philadelphia and one year to residency training in the Lehigh Valley.
Her heart, however, remained in Scranton.
Today the West Scranton High School alumna – who says she had been “inching back” to her hometown through a succession of early-career jobs – is finally in the place she wants to be, working for a Scranton-based nonprofit organization whose mission matches her personal philosophy of putting patients first: The Wright Center for Community Health.
“The mission connects to my core values,” says McCarthy, 33. “I’m able to give my patients the care that I think they need, because with The Wright Center’s emphasis on access and affordability – and its sliding-fee discount program – we can make things happen for people. It’s not all about that bottom line.”
McCarthy joined The Wright Center in October 2019, jumping at the chance to help launch a dental clinic at its startup Scranton Practice in the city’s South Side neighborhood. Today, the busy dental clinic serves a diverse patient population that appeals to McCarthy’s blue-collar sensibilities, including Medicaid users and individuals from traditionally underserved populations who often face challenges in getting routine oral care.
About 120 dental patients are seen each week at the Scranton Practice. As is the case at many area dental offices, the wait for an initial appointment can be weeks – an unfortunate circumstance caused by a shortage of dentists in Northeast Pennsylvania.
Lackawanna, Luzerne and Susquehanna counties are designated by the federal government as Health Professional Shortage Areas for dental care, specifically when it comes to care for the low-income population. Public health officials and others have long recognized the barriers that low-income individuals often face in accessing oral care in the Keystone State, noting that in 2015 less than one-quarter of the state’s general dentists were accepting Medicaid as payment.
“For those in rural areas, it is not uncommon for individuals to … wait months to see a dental provider,” according to the state Department of Health’s “Pennsylvania Oral Health Plan 2020-2030.”
McCarthy can attest to how the situation frustrates patients who are left with few places to turn. “I’ve had a lot of patients come in during the past few years because their dentist stopped taking their insurance,” she says. “I also have had a lot of patients come in because their dentist’s office closed when the COVID-19 pandemic began.”
To help meet the demand for affordable, high-quality care, The Wright Center operates two state-of-the-art dental clinics, in Scranton and Jermyn, and expects to soon open a third clinic at its planned Wilkes-Barre Practice at 169 N. Pennsylvania Ave.
The Wright Center also has expanded its oral care services beyond basic cleanings and fillings and significantly increased its workforce in recent years, hiring skilled and compassionate dentists like McCarthy as well as hygienists, assistants and support staff. Together, these professionals strive to offer a level of care far above what is known derisively in the dental field as “drill and bill.”
The Wright Center’s team members instead use a patient-centered approach. They will ask the individual’s treatment preferences in cases, for example, where the options are to pull a deteriorated tooth or preserve it. And they will talk to a patient about the treatment’s expense and payment options.
Under Pennsylvania’s current system, Medicaid typically doesn’t cover crowns, root canals and other advanced procedures. The dental team will help the patient to explore other avenues of making the services affordable, including the organization’s sliding-fee discount program that is based on family size and income.
McCarthy enjoys being able to serve the whole community, and she appreciates not feeling the pressure inherent in some private practices to boost revenue. “I suppose you can find a reason to put a crown on any tooth,” she says. “But I recognize that people work hard for their money, and I’m not going to overtreat them.”
‘Defensive of Scranton’
McCarthy’s values and work ethic were largely shaped by her parents, both of whom were union members.
Her father is a retired electrician. Her mother is a retired public school teacher, from whom she picked up a love of learning and possibly her affinity for Greater Scranton. McCarthy fondly recalls how her mother made the most of summer breaks from school, shuttling her, her sister and brother to educational sites around town such as the coal mine tour, trolley ride and museum.
A graduate of West Scranton High School, Dr. Caitlin McCarthy, 33, is glad to be serving patients from her blue-collar hometown and nearby parts of Northeast Pennsylvania.
An avid reader, McCarthy excelled in the classroom from an early age, but didn’t immediately consider a career in medicine.
Her main goal: Settle into a lifestyle similar to what her mom and dad had built for themselves and their children in the Electric City. “I remember realizing in high school that if I had the life my parents had,” she says, “I would be perfectly happy.”
McCarthy ultimately was drawn to dentistry. Her path was influenced by her own childhood experiences. She had multiple wiggly baby teeth and a few adult teeth pulled by her family’s oral care provider, a dentist whom she respected even during those early office visits for extractions. “My dentist managed to make each visit a positive experience,” she says. “In the end, it always wound up being, ‘Look what you did!”
As an undergraduate at The University of Scranton, McCarthy reveled in academia. She consistently made the dean’s list, was inducted into five honor societies and got chosen for an international service trip to Guyana. She graduated in 2011 with a dual major in biology and biomathematics, while also fulfilling the requirements for minors in biochemistry and English.
A Scranton newspaper reporter interviewed McCarthy around that time. The resulting article spotlighted her selection by the Scranton District Dental Society for its Dr. Bernard Shair Memorial Scholarship Award, presented each year to an aspiring dentist with a track record of service work.
In the article, McCarthy said she wanted “to be a dentist who is also active in the community.” She also revealed some of her favorite pastimes – watching NBA games and crocheting – and, when asked about her aversions, responded that she didn’t appreciate people who “trash talk” the region. “I’m very defensive of Scranton,” she said.
Bringing it home
Not surprisingly, McCarthy considered attending only those dental schools near her hometown, so she could easily get home on weekends to be with family, friends and her dog.
She studied at The University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine, enticed there partly by what she could learn beyond the classroom walls. “I felt Penn had a lot of good outreach programs and community service requirements – things that would get me out of the dental chair and into the community,” she says.
McCarthy earned her degree in 2015, then completed a general practice residency at Lehigh Valley Health Network’s Muhlenberg Hospital before making the gradual progression back to her family and home community.
Now married and living in Luzerne County, McCarthy looks forward to introducing her own daughter, who is 1, to the places and pastimes she experienced while growing up.
Meanwhile, McCarthy gets to help train and mentor the next generation of dentists.
General dentist Dr. Caitlin McCarthy of The Wright Center for Community Health Scranton Practice shows a patient his sensational smile, the result of extensive restoration work. The Wright Center’s dental team offers high-quality, affordable care to individuals who have insurance plans, including Medicaid, and to the uninsured.
She serves as the program director for an Advanced Education in General Dentistry Residency, offered locally through a partnership with NYU Langone Dental Medicine. Since 2021, The Wright Center has served as a Northeast Pennsylvania training site for NYU’s dental residents, welcoming about two each year into its Scranton-area clinics. McCarthy especially enjoys watching as more women enter what traditionally had been a male-dominated field.
And in case there’s any doubt, yes, if The Wright Center had been engaged in a community-based dental residency program at the time she was training, says McCarthy, “I probably would have done my residency at The Wright Center.”
After all, it would have felt like home.
For information about dental and other health care services available at The Wright Center for Community Health’s primary care practices in Northeast Pennsylvania, call 570.230.0019 or visit TheWrightCenter.org/services.