A Personal Mission: Bridging the Oral Health Care Gap

May 2, 2013, 12:00 PM, Posted by

Monique Trice, 24, is a University of Louisville School of Dentistry student who will complete her studies in 2015. Trice completed the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP) in 2008 at the University of Louisville site. Started in 1988, SMDEP (formerly known as the Minority Medical Education Program and Summer Medical and Education Program), is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation–sponsored program with more than 21,000 alumni. Today, SMDEP sponsors 12 sites, with each accepting up to 80 students per summer session. 

Diversity is more than ethnicity. It also includes geography, perspective, and more. I was raised in Enterprise, Ala., which is in Coffee County. The community’s demographic and geographic makeup set the stage for an oral health care crisis. Here’s how:

  • Enterprise is a community of 27,000 and just 15 licensed general dentists, three Medicaid dental providers, and zero licensed pediatric dentists to service Coffee County, a population of 51,000. In 2011, Alabama’s Office of Primary Care and Rural Health reported that 65 of the state’s 67 counties were designated as dental health shortage areas for low-income populations.
  • According to this data, more than 260 additional dentists would be needed to bridge gaps and fully meet the need. For some residents, time, resources, and distance figure into the equation, putting dental care out of reach. In some rural communities, an hour’s drive is required to access dental services.
  • Lack of affordable public transportation creates often-insurmountable barriers to accessing dental care.

Growing up in a single-parent household, my siblings and I experienced gaps in dental care. Fortunately, we never suffered from an untreated cavity from poor oral health care, but many low-income, underserved children and adults are not so lucky.

Working in the field of dentistry during high school and as an undergraduate, I encountered numerous patients with untreated dental caries. Most of them were preventable, but lack of insurance coverage for dental care and/or lack of access to transportation made it impossible for these patients to get the help they needed.

There is no public transportation system in Coffee County or surrounding areas. This leads to "no shows" for dental care providers and patients who go without treatment.

In addition to care and treatment, oral health care education is imperative for patients and providers. As a 2008 alumnae of the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP), and now a third-year student at the University of Louisville, my education and training have prepared me to both care for and teach future patients. I intend to devote my career to bridging gaps in oral health care for low-income, rural Alabamans. I plan to open a dental studio in my hometown of Enterprise, and I will welcome low-income patients.

But many more dental educators and providers are needed to reduce the oral health disparities in Alabama. More dental school educators can help future dentists convey to patients the importance of routine oral health care (and the harm caused by not getting that care). With more providers, better access to public transportation, and providers who can treat Medicaid patients, particularly those who live in rural and underserved communities, we can bridge the gaps in care.

Providing these elements could greatly help reduce systemic diseases that develop from untreated dental work. It can also serve to reduce patients’ traumatic experiences with dentists, and bring more awareness to the importance of routine oral health care.

Perhaps easier said than done, but I plan to tackle these programs. I am dedicated to helping bridge these disparities with the help of others in my home community.

SMDEP is a free six-week summer academic enrichment program that offers freshman and sophomore college students intensive and personalized medical and dental school preparation. It is sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation with direction and technical assistance provided by The Association of American Medical Colleges and The American Dental Education Association.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.