Smiles for the Underserved: Dr. Srikar Vulugundam’s Journey in Bringing Dental Care to All

Smiles for the Underserved Dr. Srikar Vulugundam's Journey in Bringing Dental Care to All

In a world where healthcare is crucial, dentistry plays a key role. It’s not just about teeth; it’s about overall well-being. As we move forward, the importance of dental health, especially for those who don’t have easy access to it, is more evident than ever. Leading the charge in this area is Dr. Srikar Vulugundam, a dentist with a heart for the underserved and a resume that speaks volumes about his dedication and skill.

Dr. Vulugundam’s story is as impressive as it is inspiring. Starting his career in India, he quickly moved to the US to expand his knowledge and skills. After earning a Master’s in Public Health and a Doctorate in Dental Surgery, he chose a path that many wouldn’t – serving communities that are often forgotten. He’s not just a dentist; he’s a teacher, shaping future dentists at UTHSC School of Dentistry in Memphis, and a leader, currently steering the dental program at AtlantiCare Health Services in New Jersey. His work isn’t confined to his clinic; he’s out there making a real difference.

The accolades Dr. Vulugundam has received are a testament to his impact. From the Erlanger Spotlight and Spirit of Excellence Awards to various other recognitions, each award echoes his commitment to his profession and his patients. But what’s more compelling is his upcoming work with Rutgers University and his continuous effort to bring dental care to those who need it most.

In our conversation with Dr. Vulugundam, we dive into his world – not just the achievements, but the real stories, the challenges, and his vision for a future where dental care is accessible to all. Stick around, as this is a story about more than just dentistry; it’s about making a difference, one smile at a time.

We’re thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with you, Dr. Vulugundam. Your recognitions suggest a strong commitment to excellence in your field. Can you share what initially drove you to such levels of dedication in dentistry?

My parents dedicated their professional lives to serving remote, underserved areas in India, instilling in me the importance of ethical healthcare service. My experiences as a student and a young professional, both in India and the USA, highlighted the stark shortage of healthcare workforce in remote areas of both countries. This upbringing, combined with my direct exposure to the impact of workforce shortages on society, has cemented my unwavering commitment to focus my career on serving those most in need. On a personal level, I always strive to excel in everything I do. This passion for excellence continually motivates me to perform at my highest potential in my profession.

The Erlanger Spotlight Award is a significant recognition. What specific contribution or achievement earned you this award?

The Erlanger Spotlight Award is a peer-nominated honor for employees who consistently exceed their regular job responsibilities, particularly in providing exceptional service to colleagues and patients. I was honored with this nomination for my actions during a critical situation, where assurance and support were paramount in maintaining calm and safety. Without delving into the particulars of that occurrence, my role in coordinating a calm and structured team response during one such incident prompted my nomination.

Empathy, compassion, and support are essential in these intense moments, and my reliability as a team member in such circumstances was recognized by the award committee, culminating in my receiving the Spotlight Award.

The Spirit of Excellence Award is given to Erlanger Medical Group providers who demonstrate outstanding performance and a caring attitude toward both patients and staff. My recognition for this award stemmed from my professional performance in both clinical and nonclinical roles, impacting numerous individuals within the organization and our patient population. A significant issue we faced was the routine slowdown of our digital radiography software and the backup server, leading to delays in treating patients in acute pain or need. Motivated by multiple interruptions in patient care, I delved into resolving the root of the problem, ultimately finding a permanent solution. By closely collaborating with the IT team, we improved patient flow and tackled IT issues, resulting in the installation of a new server in the clinic to expedite the backup and retrieval process. This change ensured uninterrupted care and resolved the startup issues with the X-ray software.

Additionally, I regularly coordinated with dental technicians for timely equipment repairs to avoid impacting clinical services. I’ve performed same-day unscheduled procedures to alleviate patient pain, often going beyond the scheduled time, and demonstrated compassion to those in immediate need. My focus on health education, especially for children and teenagers, has also been a key part of my role. These cumulative efforts led to my receipt of the Spirit of Excellence Award, a recognition given to doctors and providers who not only exhibit exceptional performance but also serve as role models for the team.

The award from the New York Academy of Oral Rehabilitation stands out as particularly prestigious. What did this recognition mean to you personally and professionally?

This award both personally and professionally acknowledges my unwavering dedication to providing top-notch clinical care. It highlights my commitment to restoring and enhancing oral health, achieving ideal aesthetics and functionality through both removable and implantable devices. Receiving this award has bolstered my confidence in my clinical abilities and communication skills, encouraging me to strive for even greater excellence as a healthcare professional. Moreover, it reinforces my commitment, integrity, and credibility among my peers and colleagues in the dental profession.

You’ve received multiple certificates of merit over the years. Is there one in particular that was especially challenging to earn or that holds special significance to you?

Each certificate of merit I’ve received is a testament to my hard work, consistent performance, and sharp attention to detail in my professional endeavors. Among these, the certificate of merit in oral pathology holds a unique place of significance for me. Earning this certificate involved rigorous evaluation by multiple professionals, who extensively questioned and discussed my knowledge in oral pathology, including various clinical conditions, abnormalities, and their histopathological findings.

This intense scrutiny by highly esteemed professionals in the field culminated in a significant recognition: I was honored as the individual with the highest score in oral pathology in the history of our college of dentistry. This acknowledgment not only highlights my special efforts and technical expertise but also has a cherished place in my heart, or as one might say, in my collection of awards.

To what do you attribute your consistent track record of receiving accolades and awards in your profession? Are there certain guiding principles or mentors that have influenced your journey?

My success can be largely attributed to the upbringing and education in ethical living provided by my parents. They instilled in me certain ideals that have become guiding principles in both my professional life and personal behavior. These principles include a commitment to timely action, avoiding procrastination, ethically treating all individuals in need of healthcare services, doing the right thing even when it’s challenging, and refraining from taking shortcuts to achieve success.

My mentors, chiefly my parents, along with various professors and professionals I’ve encountered throughout my dental career, have played pivotal roles in shaping me into the successful individual and professional I am today.

How have these recognitions and awards impacted your professional practice, patient relationships, or collaborations with peers in the dental community?

These recognitions and awards are not just accolades; they are affirmations of my core practice values and my commitment to the dental profession. Professionally, these honors have enhanced my interactions and relationships with peers. My colleagues recognize and value the strategies and skills that have contributed to my success. This recognition has led to improved workflows and more efficient teamwork, as my team members often seek my guidance for creative and innovative solutions. For patients, these awards boost their confidence and trust in me as their healthcare provider, which translates into better compliance and health outcomes – a win-win situation for everyone.

Furthermore, in the broader dental community, these accolades have fostered deeper collaborations and partnerships. They have strengthened my ties with the local dental society, health department, special needs dental clinics serving the underserved, and state dental schools. These institutions take pride in sending their students for rotations under my mentorship, allowing me to train the next generation in clinical care. Ultimately, these recognitions and awards have reinforced my resolve to continue working towards providing affordable and accessible dental care for all.

For upcoming dentists or students aiming for such notable recognitions in their careers, what advice or guidance would you offer based on your own experiences?

For aspiring dentists and young professionals, my advice is to stay grounded in the fundamentals and uphold ethical principles. As wisely stated by Winston Churchill, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.” Dedicate yourself to fulfilling your professional responsibilities by treating every patient with the same care and compassion you would offer a family member. Building a practice based on strong ethics and treating others as you would like to be treated will naturally pave the way for a successful career. Seeking recognition solely for its own sake can divert your attention from the essential element of providing clinical care, which may ultimately hinder both personal growth and professional advancement.

Remember, focusing on achieving the best possible outcomes for your patients is the true path to success. Success is a byproduct of doing the right thing every day with determination, even when the odds seem stacked against you.

Dr. Srikar Vulugundam’s story is a testament to the power of dedication and ethical practice in dentistry. His journey, marked by significant contributions to underserved communities and numerous accolades, stands as an inspiration for healthcare professionals everywhere.

As we close our conversation, it’s evident that his success goes beyond professional achievements, resonating deeply in the smiles and lives he has transformed.