The University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Dentistry is developing creative programs and using new technology to solve the growing problems of access to oral health care and the shortage of oral health practitioners in rural areas. Three programs stand out: 1) partnering with the Nebraska State Dental Association to form a consortium with Wyoming, Kansas, and South Dakota to address oral health access problems of underserved populations in rural areas; 2) establishing an electronic link with a hospital in Alliance, Nebraska, to offer practicing dentists 400 miles away the support and expertise of dental faculty; and 3) launching a distance continuing education course for rural dentists to save them time and money.
“To try to solve the large and complex challenges of oral health care in rural areas, we’ve had to get creative,” said John Reinhardt, DDS, Dean of the UNMC College of Dentistry, which is located in Lincoln, Nebraska. “We are partnering with states in our region, creating new student recruitment programs, and using technology to close the distance.” Some of these programs and technology could be applied in other states with similar rural access issues, he said.
Through the formation of the Great Plains Oral Health Consortium in 2004, the UNMC College of Dentistry will help solve access to care issues in Nebraska and partner states (Wyoming, South Dakota, and Kansas) by creating student recruitment programs in those states, providing guaranteed spots at the college for their students who qualify, and encouraging those students to consider a rural practice through externships in small towns. Technology plays a part in each program.
“Being in a rural state where there is a shortage of dentists, it is important that we find ways to lure the best and brightest students to consider a career in dentistry,” said Tim Pieper, DDS, President of the Wyoming Dental Association.
Dr. Pieper was one of several people from Great Plains states that Dean Reinhardt approached at an American Dental Association meeting in 2001. The dean suggested that Nebraska and the other three states join forces and apply for financial support earmarked by the federal government.
In partnership with the Nebraska Dental Association, the College of Dentistry and dental associations in Wyoming, Kansas, and South Dakota worked together on a one-year “Target Access Great Plains Oral Health” grant proposal. As a result, Wyoming received $360,000, Nebraska $250,000, and South Dakota $200,000.
“Among other things, we will use the money to train and equip practicing dentists across the state of Wyoming to go into high schools, community colleges, and undergraduate institutions to recruit students,” Dr. Pieper said.
As the lead institution, the UNMC College of Dentistry is using the funding to provide recruiting materials, including a recruitment DVD customized for each state, literature, and 3,000 recruiting posters that will be sent to dentists in the partner states.
As coordinator of all Target Access activities, Curt Kuster, DDS, Director of Admissions and a professor in the department of growth and development, will visit colleges in all of the states to meet with students and advisors. The college will also facilitate a predental class at the University of Wyoming, using technology to close the distance between the college and its potential students.
High-speed Internet links are also connecting practicing dentists to the college. Last fall, the college launched its first interactive continuing education course conducted via the Internet to dentists in Gering, Nebraska, a six-hour drive and one time zone away from the instructor in Lincoln. Using the technology already up and running at the college’s dental hygiene program in which students in Gering take courses with peers in Lincoln, the college offered a three credit-hour oral pathology course on lichenoid lesions, burning mouth syndrome, and white lesions.
Sam Jacoby, DDS, from Bridgeport, Nebraska, said, “We are required to have 30 hours of continuing education credits every two years to keep our license. Sometimes in our part of the world that is hard to do without having to travel 400 miles to Lincoln or 250 miles to Denver.”
The college is also using existing programs as opportunities to increase access and recruitment. For the past four years, the college has hosted Children’s Dental Day at its clinics in Lincoln, busing in youths from a dozen surrounding counties, according to David Brown, PhD, professor of oral biology. Last year 73 faculty, staff, and students climbed on a bus themselves for the 800-mile round trip to Alliance, Nebraska to take Children’s Dental Day on the road, providing comprehensive restorative care, cleanings, and fluoride treatments in 17 local dentists’ operatories.
The day provides oral health care for underserved families while giving students the opportunity to practice dental and cultural competency skills. But that’s not all.
“A side-benefit of Dental Day in our community was the chance to showcase to the dental and dental hygiene students the rewards of practicing in a rural area,” said Donald “Cork” Taylor Jr., DDS, one of the local practitioners involved. “We are constantly searching for innovative ways to ease the shortage of dental practitioners in rural locations.”
All these activities reinforce the college’s message that dental education is a gift that one should share with the less fortunate.