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With more than 20 years of dental experience each, performing oral surgery is nothing new for Drs. Bill Childress and Karl Meyer.

But opening their first private practice focused strictly on civilian care is.

The two retired U.S. Air Force colonels opened East Brainerd Oral Surgery on Mackey Branch Drive in July, and in the past several months have battled a somewhat steep learning curve.

"We didn't have any experience with insurance, and we didn't realize how long it would take to get signed up," said Childress, who retired from the Air Force in August along with Meyer. "We had our jobs in the Air Force, so we kind of had to wait until we got out of the Air Force to start working on some of this stuff, and it takes months to get on some of these insurance plans."

The doctors also have learned that outside the military, money concerns for patients play a larger role in their care. During a sluggish economic period, they're faced with fewer patients than they had before leaving the military.

"In the Air Force, you have a full book, ample patients, and the fees don't matter," Meyer said. "If you have a military active duty card or a dependent card and you're in that facility, that is your insurance card. If you have a procedure, no matter how costly, if that is the right thing for you, you're going to receive that."

Still, the pair said they're pleased with the way things have gone so far in their practice.

Childress and Meyer have known each other since 1994, when they began their six-year residency together and subsequently began teaching dentistry in the military. The doctors decided last year to open their private practice in East Tennessee because of their love of the area.

After briefly considering Johnson City, Tenn., for the spot where they'd set up shop, they decided on Chattanooga because the oral surgeon-to-dentist ratio was better here, they said.

"I had some friends here who I went to dental school with, and they said there was a considerable amount of time to wait to see an oral surgeon," Childress said. "Chattanooga doesn't have that many [oral surgeons], but there's a whole lot of general dentists, so there seemed to be a need for oral surgery here."

They decided on the 3,600-square-foot spot in East Brainerd, surrounded by several other health care providers with the intent of more to come. The pair equipped the facility with up-to-date equipment that keeps all records digitally, and hired several staffers experienced in private practice.

Though the pair said they sometimes miss being able to work on soldiers, they think it was the right time for them to transition into civilian care.

"It's very rewarding when you have people who come in and are in either extreme pain or have been in pain for months, and you can treat them in a fairly efficient manner," Meyer said. "If you can treat that person in the same day they come in, and help them, that's very rewarding."

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