The first class of dentists trained at a St. Louis community health clinic is ready to put its new skills to use.
A.T. Still University-Missouri School of Dentistry and Oral Health held its first graduation ceremony Saturday, conferring Doctorates of Dental Medicine to 42 graduates.
The private dental school opened in 2013 with a goal of improving access to oral health care in rural and low-income areas. Most Missouri counties have a dental care shortage, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
For their first two years, Missouri School of Dentistry students study at A.T. Still’s Kirksville campus, where A.T. Still University also teaches osteopathic medicine.
The students then move to St. Louis for their final two years to practice under faculty tutelage at Affinia’s community health center in St. Louis, which accepts Medicaid and charges patients on a sliding scale based on their income.
Dean Dwight McLeod said in an interview that at least a third of the inaugural graduating class will be working in low-income or rural communities. He sees that as a fulfillment of the Missouri School of Dentistry’s mission, and attributes the data point to the school’s application process.
“When we accept our students, we look at those criteria: is our applicant from an area that is underserved? Is our applicant willing to go back that particular community that is underserved?” said McLeod.
“Our model is a little bit unique,” McLeod added. “We’re the only dental school in the United States where pre-doctoral education is taught within the confines of a community health center.”
About one-third of the graduating class plan to pursue advanced degrees, and the final third will go into private practice.
Kristen Alexander is one of the graduates planning to work at a community health center similar to the Affinia center where she received much of her training.
“I kind of got into dentistry with a mindset of wanting to help my community,” said Alexander, adding that she decided to become a dentist in high school after working on a service project in her hometown, Poplar Bluff, in southeast Missouri.
“It’s kind of eye-opening when you start to see kids that tell you that they don’t have their own toothbrush or stuff in your own hometown. And that’s kind of what really pulled on my heartstrings to want to work at a community health center in my area,” said Alexander. “Not very many dentists accept Medicaid, and that kind of leaves a large patient population without anybody who will provide dental care to them.”
Missouri’s only other dental school is at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Southern Illinois University has a dental school in Alton that opened in 1972. SIU dental school Dean Bruce Rotter said his school averages 50 graduates a year, and the majority of its graduates stay in Illinois.
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