$3.5M in grants help UNMC expand rural dental care

Driving two hours to see a dentist is not unusual for some people who live in rural parts of Nebraska. Now, thanks to two five-year grants totaling $3.5 million, the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) College of Dentistry is trying to close this gap by sending more senior dental students and pediatric residents to communities across the state.

"We have 20 counties in Nebraska out of 93 that have no dentist whatsoever, and 30 others where there are only one or two dentists," said Kimberly McFarland, D.D.S., a professor at the UNMC College of Dentistry and the principal investigator on the grants, in a press release. "This creates huge gaps in the dental workforce in the state."

With the grants from the Health Resources and Services Administration, a division of the U.S. Health and Human Services, the UNMC College of Dentistry would like to ensure that every Nebraskan is no more than 90 miles from dental expertise. The ultimate goal is that by the year 2015 each senior dental student and pediatric resident will spend up to 30 days on rotation in a rural clinic providing services, Dr. McFarland said.

"By making rural health rotations a permanent part of the dental school training experience, critical access to dental care is increased especially in rural and underserved parts of the state," she said.

A key component of one grant is designed to promote the use of the statewide telehealth network in Nebraska by equipping senior dental students with intraoral cameras and laptop computers to take with them on rural rotations. The students will then be required to do at least one or more consultations with specialists at the College of Dentistry to become familiar with the technology.

"We hope to reach out to other healthcare providers at the critical access hospitals in the state and make sure they are comfortable in using this technology," Dr. McFarland said.

Over the past three months, students have participated in rural rotations in clinics in Lexington, Columbus, Sidney, Gering, Chadron, Burwell, and North Platte, she said. And although students have always been taking part in rural rotations, the grants allow the college to expand the number of days students can participate, Dr. McFarland said.

"Ultimately, we hope that some of these students will decide to practice in these communities after their rotation and serve the people who need them," she said.

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