Participants in the Native American Pre-Dental Student Gateway Program engage in crash courses in hands-on clinical techniques using the latest training technologies. Photos: Cass McAllister
Nearly 10,500 students applied to attend dental school in the United States this fall. Just 16 of those students are Native American, according to the American Dental Education Association.
The Native American Pre-Dental Student Gateway Program, an initiative between the UB School of Dental Medicine and Seneca Nation Health System, aims to reduce the alarming disparity by introducing Native American students to careers in dentistry.
“Simply put, there are not enough Native American students pursuing a career in dentistry,” says Joseph Salamon, program director, dental services director for Seneca Nation Health System and clinical instructor in 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.”
The program, now in its second year, provides several students with a weeklong internship that allows participants to experience the various disciplines and specialties within the dental profession.
Held this year from June 24-28, students took crash courses in hands-on clinical techniques using the latest training technologies, participated in an oral surgery boot camp and toured local oral health care product manufacturers. They also engaged in candid conversations with current dental students, and received guidance on applying to dental school and on financial aid.
This year, the program — which is open to Native American students and Indian Health Services dental staff — drew five students from Idaho, Kansas, New Mexico and Oklahoma.
“This program is a unique dental school pipeline in the United States,” says Stephen Abel, associate dean for student, community and professional initiatives in the 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 U.S. 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, is severely understaffed, adds 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 U.S. population,” says Othman Shibly, clinical professor and assistant dean for diversity and inclusion in the dental school.
“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 health care field such as dentistry,” notes Jenna Middlebrooks, program co-founder.
“By opening doors for Native American students to achieve professional education in the health care 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,” she says.
The Native American Pre-Dental Student Gateway Program aims to expand to 15 students next year, and offer similar internships for students interested in other medical fields.
The program is partially funded by the United South and Eastern Tribes, an organization comprised of 27 tribal nations dedicated to serving the health and economic needs and addressing the environmental concerns of Native Americans.