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Who’s serving whom? Fulfillment through public health dentistry


WelcomeHealth Northwest Arkansas Free Health Center was my first dental observation at a nonprofit healthcare facility. Here I experienced patient-centered care in its true form. One particular encounter with a mother and her eight-year-old daughter changed my perception of the dental profession and inspired me to pursue a career in public health.

The mother spoke fluent Spanish and limited English. Her daughter, the patient that day, served as the translator for her own primary tooth extraction. The two-member dental staff and I spoke only limited Spanish.

To the best of her ability, the daughter relayed the dentist’s pre-operatory consultation to her mother in Spanish. The daughter even asked her mother to provide the girl’s eating and oral hygiene habits and known allergies, translating her mother’s responses to the dental staff. I was amazed at the girl’s maturity in that moment and also sad she had no other choice. The procedure lasted under an hour, but I was humbled and moved by this and other similar experiences at WelcomeHealth.

Public dental service is rewarding. Employment through the National Health Service Corps (NHSC) Scholarship Program is a great way to experience public health in dentistry. The NHSC Scholarship Program awards scholarships to students enrolled in dental, nursing, doctoral and physician assistant education programs in exchange for students’ commitment to work in a health service restricted area (HSRA) after graduation. The NHSC will cover tuition, housing and other fees for the total number of years the student works for NHSC after graduation. It’s crazy to think that by serving for four years as a dentist for the NHSC, helping improve access to dental care, I will have no debt from dental school. This was a game-changer, especially since I took out loans as an out-of-state resident for school.

Even if you don’t receive a NHSC scholarship during your first year of dental school, you can still apply as a second-year or even as a third-year dental student. If you’re interested in extra loan forgiveness through NHSC, you can apply for the NHSC Loan Repayment Program to receive partial tuition assistance for any years you didn’t receive awards from the scholarship program.

If not ourselves, we likely know someone affected by a lack of access to medical and dental care. It’s a sad truth that the United States offers some of the highest-quality dental care in the world, but access to that care is challenging or even impossible for many, especially for people living on a reduced or fixed income or facing geographical isolation from routine care. While it’s reassuring that organizations like the NHSC exist with thousands of employees striving to improve access to U.S. healthcare, there’s always more to be done.

I challenge you to find your own way of offering a public dental service. Maybe it’s not working for a service organization full time. But whether it’s through a DSO, serving with the military in disaster relief or conflict-ravaged areas, owning a private practice or as a dental educator or researcher, we can all find a unique way to serve others and leave the world a brighter place than how we found it.

~ Judd Burns, Louisville ’24, ASDA District 7 Trustee

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