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Jonathan Kuipers and Emily Taylor-Haye look at Emily's x-ray.

Dental student Jonathan Kuipers and patient Emily Taylor-Haye look at Emily's x-ray at the U's new outreach clinic in Willmar, Minnesota.

Westward expansion

A new rural dental clinic offers students valuable learning opportunities and patients much-needed care

By Trish Grafstrom

From M, spring 2008

The School of Dentistry's well-established outreach program is now stretching even further--to west central Minnesota. Responding to the challenges rural communities face when recruiting health care professionals and the increasing number of outstate residents in need of affordable dental care, the School of Dentistry is sending students to treat patients at a new 10-chair clinic in Willmar, Minnesota.

After more than two years of planning and raising $2.1 million in public and private support, including $450,000 from Delta Dental of Minnesota to support service-learning opportunities, the Rice Regional Dental Clinic started taking patients in December. This community-based clinic is a collaboration between the School of Dentistry and Rice Memorial Hospital, and serves a 12-county area. Located in and owned by the hospital, the clinic gives the U's dental and hygiene students a chance to enhance their clinical skills while treating patients with diverse oral health needs.


The School of Dentistry's outreach programs accounted for more than 10,000 patient-visits last year, the majority by uninsured or underinsured patients. In addition to the new Willmar clinic, outreach sites include:

Hibbing Community College Dental Clinic, a collaboration with Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU)

Community University Health Care Center (Minneapolis), located near downtown in an ethnically diverse neighborhood

Mobile Dental Unit(urban and rural locations), targets enrollees in the UCare Minnesota health care program

NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center (Minneapolis), delivers care to families living in north side communities

Walker Dental Clinic (Minneapolis), within the Walker Methodist Health Care Center to provide care for older adults

Prairie Winds Dental Clinic (Howard, South Dakota), committed to underserved patients throughout South Dakota

"I saw a lot of children and was surprised by some of their dental problems--things that could be avoided with basic oral hygiene," says fourth-year student Shawn Spoden, who participated in the clinic's second rotation. "I liked the variety of work and the faster pace of seeing more patients."

Another of the program's goals is to introduce students to community and professional life in underserved rural areas. The idea is that they might choose to start or join outstate dental practices after graduation.

"I picked both the Hibbing and Willmar clinic rotations because I'm interested in a semi-rural partnership or group practice," says Spoden. "I enjoyed both experiences immensely. It was fun and challenging."

All fourth-year dental students are required to spend six to eight weeks treating underserved patients in one of the U's seven outreach sites, according to Paul Schulz, associate clinical specialist and director of outreach for the School of Dentistry.

"In addition to the clinical experience, students are required to give presentations in area schools and community organizations as a way to promote oral health and urge students from rural areas to consider dental careers," he says. "This is an activity that will be added to the Willmar site this spring."

What's more, Schulz says, the school is beginning to encourage all outreach clinics to ask rural dentists, many of whom are alumni, to volunteer as adjunct faculty to mentor and connect with the students during their rotations.

Early indications are that the program is helping to bring long-term dental care to underserved regions. "Out of last year's graduating class, I know of five dentists who were placed in outstate Minnesota and South Dakota clinics," says Schulz. "That's exactly what we want to see."