statistics depict similar extremes: 2.7 million residents. Fewer than
1,700 dentists. One dental school.
For underrepresented populations, those extremes are even more
pronounced. U.S. Census figures show that 47 percent of Nevadans are
Latino, Black, American Indian, Asian, Pacific Islander, or
multiracial. Yet, a 2007 report, Dentist Workforce in Nevada, found
that dentists who self-identify as White number more than 70 percent
in every region. In the rural and frontier areas, the likelihood that
a non-White patient will be treated by a White dentist is greater than
But a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF)-funded
Dental Pipeline National Learning Institute (NLI) program is helping
to change those odds. NLI supports community-based dental education
and recruitment of students from underserved communities through
grants to dental school/community partnerships.
At the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), a partnership between
the School of Dental Medicine and the Center for Academic Enrichment
and Outreach (CAEO) works to increase diversity in Nevada’s oral
health care by introducing culturally diverse high school students to
the health care professions.
Putting Dentistry on the Radar
The UNLV pipeline project launched in early 2013, partnering with
CAEO’s federally funded Upward Bound program. “Our core objective was
to recruit high-risk individuals who exhibit great promise but may not
have role models in the health professions,” says Frank Jones, DDS,
MBA, assistant professor and director of continuing education.
Through monthly events with health professionals, career days,
simulation labs, and workshops, the project gives underrepresented
students practical experience in the health sciences. “We want these
students to see the enormously rewarding careers that exist for them,
and to actualize their dreams,” Jones says.
“The students are from grades 9-12, generally from low-income
families, and more than likely the first generation in their families
to attend college,” explains community partner Jennie Johnson, CAEO’s
Upward Bound director. “Before participating with us, very few of them
knew anything about dentistry, let alone considered it as a career.”
The exposure to a new career path was eye-opening for students, she
adds. “Even though dentistry wasn’t on their radar before, they saw
that it can be both a great opportunity for them and a way to meet a
Economic Accessibility, Cultural Connections
“Community need” is acute in the Silver State, which has the highest
unemployment rate in the country—and where, according to a report by
UNLV’s Center for Democratic Culture, 58 percent of the combined
Black, Latino, American Indian, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander
population lives in poverty.
Providing care to those communities is rife with challenges, explains
Keith Rogers, CAEO’s deputy executive director. “Look at dentists and
where they are located,” he says candidly. “They’re not taking new
patients, not making care available to low-income patients. There’s no
With only about 10 percent of dental students at UNLV coming from
underrepresented populations, Nevada has considerable work to do. But
there’s hope on the horizon.
As Dentist Workforce in Nevada notes, 91 percent of dentists who went
to high school in the state’s Urban South work in that region; the
results are similar for the Urban North. Graduates of rural/frontier
high schools also have a high return rate, at 62.5 percent.
“This strong relationship between high school region and workplace
region suggests that efforts targeted at increasing the number of
dental school students from underserved areas of Nevada, such as rural
and frontier counties, may be particularly effective at increasing the
number of dentists in those areas,” the report’s authors concluded.
The data supports what NLI and its grantees already know: dental
pipeline projects are crucial to achieving that increase.
“We help students identify with all cultures, beginning with their
own,” says Mildred A. McClain, PhD, associate professor of clinical
sciences at UNLV and one of the project’s coordinators. “When they
become culturally sensitive, they’re motivated to bring their newfound
skills not only to their own communities but to communities across
Frank Jones adds, “Ultimately, we hope they’ll return to mentor the
next generation of students who lack the resources to become the
health care leaders of tomorrow.”
A Valuable Partnership
Reflecting on the 2013 project, CAEO’s Johnson is excited about the
early outcomes. “We had an overwhelming response, and the summer
program was huge,” she says.
Participants flooded the instructors with questions. What are the
prerequisites? Am I going to be able to handle math and science? Who
can help me with those subjects? How many hours do I need to study? Is
there anyone who can help me find financial aid?
“These were college prep students, but some of them had no idea where
to start,” Johnson says. “We talked about how they had prepared for
college and what they saw as obstacles.”
In simulation labs, the high schoolers got to use the same instruments
and equipment as first-year dental students. “They loved making the
molds, using them, and having that hands-on experience. It gave them
insight into what a day as a dental student is like,” Johnson
explains. “That’s what was so exciting.”
To Keith Rogers, the project addresses a long-neglected need. “It’s
vital that we expose students to the need for oral health care and
foster greater awareness,” he says. “That’s why we’re always receptive
to partnering with pipeline programs. We’ve crafted a valuable
partnership here, and we need to continue expanding it.”