Georgia and South Carolina have more than a border in common. They also share an eye-opening statistic: Each state has only one dental school.
The deficiency underscores a gap in access to oral health that afflicts many of their residents: the dentist-to-patient ratio is 44-to-100,000. That’s 17 percent lower than the rest of the United States.
Imbalances like these are what the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF)-funded Dental Pipeline National Learning Institute (NLI) program strives to address. Through grants to dental school/community partnerships, NLI supports community-based dental education and recruitment of students from underserved communities.
“There’s a huge disparity between Georgia’s underserved residents and the pool of dentists available to treat them, especially in rural areas,” says Carole M. Hanes, DMD, director of an NLI-supported initiative targeting the central and southern parts of the state.
Her colleague, Stephanie Perry, concurs. “Georgia has 159 counties, and big swaths of it are rural,” she says. “We have lots of vegetation—and not a lot of dentists.”
Hanes and Perry oversee admissions at the College of Dental Medicine at Georgia Regents University (GRU) in Augusta, where they partner with the state’s central and southern Area Health Education Centers (AHEC) to provide recruitment summits, mentoring, and materials to students from underserved communities.
In neighboring South Carolina, Gwendolyn Brown, DMD, works to close the gap between patients and practitioners through another NLI grantee: the South Carolina AHEC Summer Careers Academy.
“Our program is a big reality check,” says Brown, director of diversity at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) College of Dental Medicine and the academy’s dental coordinator. As students immerse themselves in a week’s worth of workshops and clinical sessions on the MUSC campus, they are often startled by what awaits them on their chosen career path. “They’re surprised when they find out how complicated the process is,” she says.
Early Exposure Is Key
GRU’s Perry says the lack of exposure to dentists is a further impediment. “In rural areas, the role models for most kids are farmers or migrant workers.”
“All they see in health care are physicians, not dentists,” she adds, noting that the dearth of oral health professionals has a dual impact in underserved communities: It impedes access to dental care, and it further limits viable role models and mentors for the health professionals of the future. Some areas of Georgia have only one dentist serving two counties, while 37 counties have no dentist or hygienist.
With minimal introduction to other professions, students considering health careers are apt to see themselves as doctors or nurses. They don’t know how to seek out broader health care career opportunities—or even that such opportunities exist.
This absence of exposure is familiar to MUSC’s Brown. Besides students’ scant personal interactions with dental professionals, she points out, popular culture tends to promote physicians and nurses as more glamorous. “Have you ever seen a prime-time series follow the lives and loves of a team of dentists?” she asks.
Other barriers “include financial pressures leading up to and following a student’s successful educational quest,” Brown adds. “The debt incurred after dental school is staggering.”
Valuable Guidance and Mentorship
The GRU and MUSC programs help future dental professionals identify financial resources while offering guidance on such topics as admission requirements, alternative education tracks—for example, the military—and preparing for the all-important Dental Admission Test (DAT).
A four-year dental education at a public institution costs nearly $230,000, according to the American Student Dental Association—and more at a private school. That can be prohibitive for disadvantaged students.
“Even the DAT is expensive. Our NLI grant has given us the opportunity to prepare students who lacked the preparation,” says Perry. She adds that with the support of six college presidents, the GRU program bought and set up DAT prep tests in their libraries, giving students easier (and affordable) access.
For its March 2013 summit, the program bused students from Albany, Ga., to GRU’s Augusta campus so they could participate in hands-on workshops and meet with academic advisers. Students also benefit from shadowing opportunities with program mentors.
Samantha Cook, a senior at Georgia’s Columbus State University, is a GRU summer program alumna who hopes to attend the College of Dental Medicine. “It was an amazing experience,” she says. “Not only did I get to shadow dental students, but they gave me pointers on getting in and how to select a specialty.”
She adds that patient interaction is what attracts her most to dentistry. “I can’t treat everyone, but I can make a difference for the people who come into my office,” she says.
Great People, Great Dentists
Perry says the GRU admissions staff takes a “holistic review”—looking at a student’s GPA and performance on the DAT, as well as interactions with other students and staff.
Additionally, the school’s senior dental curriculum includes externships. “In the past, they used to do these in plush private practice offices. Now, they do them in public health settings.
“Some are in prisons, or in midtown Atlanta,” she explains. “This gives our students a feel for giving back.”
Program directors and administrators view giving back as an important measure of student success because it generates an exponential return on investment.
“One GRU dental graduate opened a clinic back home in her rural county, while another has built a successful practice in hers,” Perry says. That means those underserved communities will get the dental care they’ve been lacking. It’s further affirmation that the program’s approach is working.
Asked how the program identifies successful candidates, Perry replies, “We look for great people who can become great dentists.”