Program Recruits Native American Students Into Dentistry

Dentistry Today
Photo: Cass McAllister

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Photo: Cass McAllister

Though 10,500 students applied to attend dental schools in the United States this fall, only 16 of them are Native American, according to the American Dental Education Association. The Native American Pre-Dental Student Gateway Program, an initiative between the University at Buffalo (UB) School of Dental Medicine and Seneca Nation Health System, aims to reduce that disparity by introducing Native American students to careers in dentistry. 

“Simply put, there are not enough Native American students pursuing a career in dentistry,” said Joseph Salamon, DDS, program director and dental services director for Seneca Nation Health System and clinical instructor at the UB School of Dental Medicine. 

“The program seeks to encourage and enhance Native American application to dental school through exposure to various aspects of professional dental education, with the goal of diversifying the pre-dental application pool and extending education opportunity to the historically underrepresented Native American community,” said Salamon.

Now in its second year, the program provides several students with a weeklong internship that enables them to experience the various disciplines and specialties within the dental profession. It is open to Native American students and Indian Health Services dental staff. This year, it drew five students from Idaho, Kansas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. 

Held this year from June 24 to June 28, students took courses in hands-on clinical techniques using the latest training technologies, participated in an oral surgery boot camp, and toured local oral healthcare product manufacturers, the school reports. They also engaged in candid conversations with current dental students and received guidance on applying to dental school and for financial aid.

“This program is a unique dental school pipeline in the United States,” said Stephen Abel, DDS, associate dean for student, community, and professional initiatives at the UB School of Dental Medicine. “Reaching out to Native American communities not only enhances the diversity of our student body, but also expands the number of caregivers sensitive to the unique oral health issues amongst this community.” 

Despite Native Americans comprising 3% of the country’s population, they make up 0.2% of dentists, according to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Indian Health Services, an HHS division that provides medical and health services to Native American and Alaska Native communities, are severely understaffed, said Salamon. 

“There are huge health disparities in the Native American population across the country. The history of social injustices that Native Americans have suffered have resulted in less representation in the health sciences, and more periodontal disease and at least four times more caries in their teeth compared to the US population,” said Othman Shibly, DDS, clinical professor and assistant dean for diversity and inclusion at the UB School of Dental Medicine. 

“The many barriers to higher education for Native American students, such as inadequate federal funding of secondary education programs on tribal lands, transportation challenges, cultural dissonance, and a shortage of Native American educators, make it incredibly difficult to be guided into a highly specialized healthcare field such as dentistry,” said Jenna Middlebrooks, DrPH, program cofounder. 

“By opening doors for Native American students to achieve professional education in the healthcare field, it’s our hope that they may ultimately provide care for their own tribal communities in an effort to increase access to culturally appropriate care,” said Middlebrooks.

The Native American Pre-Dental Student Gateway Program aims to expand to 15 students next year and to offer similar internships for students interested in other medical fields. It is partially funded by the United South and Eastern Tribes, which comprises 27 Tribal Nations and is dedicated to serving the health and economic needs and addressing the environmental concerns of Native Americans.

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