Oral surgeon sees mission to treat poor, uninsured

| September 23, 2010 | 2 Comments

Dr. Thomas Keane, an oral surgeon at Esthesia Oral Surgery Care in Edina, talks with patient Avis Frethem after performing a tooth extraction at his dental office, with help from dental assistant Erinn Lauby, right. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

The patients who go to Dr. Thomas Keane’s Edina dental clinic aren’t like the patients one might expect to encounter at a suburban clinic.

That’s because Keane is one of only two oral surgeons in the Twin Cities who take most of the area’s Medicaid patients, he explained.

“We don’t close our doors to anybody,” said Keane, 59.

When Esthesia Oral Surgery Care began accepting patients enrolled in state-funded health plans and uninsured patients 12 years ago, other oral surgeons thought he was crazy, Keane said.

Today, about 70 percent of Esthesia’s patients lack private insurance, costing the clinic up to $35,000 per year in unreimbursed expenses.

“Other people criticize me for doing it, and they call me a chump because I’m taking these patients I don’t get paid much for,” Keane said. “But I realized a long time ago that I didn’t get this advanced training . . . on my own. I was given this by God, our maker, and he expects me to utilize these skills to treat all of his children.”

Leading by example

Years ago, when Keane started reading Scripture and learning more about his Catholic faith, particularly the church’s social justice teachings, he realized it wasn’t his job to convince other oral surgeons to act as he does. Rather, he believes God was asking him to lead by example.

Keane accepts patients others deny, he said, because “No. 1, I need to take care of the people that need to be taken care of, and No. 2, it’s my calling.”

“It really hurts the bottom line, so a lot of months it’s really dicey and it’s really touch and go,” he said. “But I’m not here to make the most money of any oral surgeon in the community.”

Every year, the number of uninsured and poor people seeking his services has been increasing, Keane said.

A friend of his recently told him about an unemployed homeless woman who was in desperate need of dental care. Keane knew the woman would not be able to pay him, but he agreed to treat her nonetheless. After removing 28 teeth, he asked a dentist friend if he would make the woman dentures for half the normal price.

Other patients are referred to Keane by cardiologists, who will not perform heart surgery if the patient has abscessed teeth because of a link between heart disease and certain dental problems. Most of the patients referred to him are on Medicare, which doesn’t cover dental procedures, he said. If they cannot afford to pay, Keane does the work for free.

Keane also advocates for the poor legislatively.

“He works tirelessly on bills that would provide children access to reconstructive surgery and also for Medicare physician reimbursement reform,” one of his nominators wrote.


  • Title: Oral surgeon at Esthesia Oral Surgery Care, Edina
  • Parish: Pax Christi, Eden Prairie
  • Spouse: Leslie Keane
  • Children: Charles Keane, Kelly Grundell, Neil Keane
  • Activities: Member of parish faith formation council, state regional delegate for American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons, state chair of Oral Maxillofacial Surgery political action committee,  member of parish Hard Hat Group


Category: Leading With Faith