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A dentist at work.

Dental student Heidi Lee examines the teeth of Raelynn Sietsema, a patient at the new Rice Regional Dental Clinic.

Filling the need

Dental students help fill need for dentists in rural Minnesota

By Sara Buss

From eNews, April 3, 2008

On its first day of operation, patients filled the 10 chairs of the Rice Regional Dental Clinic in Willmar, Minn. The clinic, a collaboration between the School of Dentistry and Rice Memorial Hospital, is the newest community-based learning site for the school. While the clinic is open to all patients, its mission is to serve low-income and uninsured patients who often are unable to access or afford dental care. The federal government has designated the 12-county area surrounding Willmar as one that is underserved by dentists as well as other health care professionals.

Fourth-year student Larry Steininger said that during his rotation he saw patients with toothaches who likely waited to come in because they were unable to pay or the wait for an appointment was too long elsewhere. "We were able to see them in a day or so--there was a definite need," he says. "I enjoyed it, and I'd love to go back." The clinic, located in and owned by the hospital, gives students the opportunity to enhance their clinical skills and to experience what it's like to work in a dental practice. "We see more patients per day at an outreach clinic such as Willmar," says fourth-year student Rachel Schwingler. "The confidence-building factor is huge." Experience suggests that dental students whose educational experience includes clinical rotations in rural and underserved areas are more likely to choose to practice in these areas after their training is complete, says Paul Schulz, the school's director of outreach. "Working in a town such as Willmar confirmed that I love life away from the hustle and bustle of the Twin Cities," Schwingler says.

Students who elect to participate in the clinical rotation work under the direction of dentist Robert Erickson, a school alum who relocated from Wisconsin to lead the program. The Willmar clinic is the seventh community outreach site for the school. In all, the school's outreach programs accounted for more than 10,000 patient visits last year, and the majority of visits were by uninsured or underinsured patients. "While oral health is not traditionally thought of as a hospital-based service, we are seeing more and more rural hospitals getting involved as the shortage of dentists in rural Minnesota worsens," says Lawrence Massa, CEO of Rice Memorial Hospital. "This new clinic is an excellent example of Rice's mission of restoring and promoting health and well-being in west central Minnesota." In the spring, Schulz says the dental students also will begin reaching out to students in the area school districts, building on the efforts of the Southern Area Health Education Center (AHEC), another University-community partnership that encourages students to consider health careers in underserved areas. "Rice's long history of involvement with health professions training and its role as the host site for the Southern AHEC has greatly contributed to bringing this collaborative effort with the University of Minnesota to fruition," says Massa.