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Dentistry in U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps

Dr. Justin Vos had graduated from University of Detroit Mercy School of Dentistry in 2007 and was working as an associate when he read a story about a dentist working for the Indian Health Service in Michigan’s remote Upper Peninsula region. “I went to dental school because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of people. And what I found was I was spending a lot of time doing practice management tasks, thinking about advertising and so forth. So I reached out to that dentist, which is how I learned about the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.”

The U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps are uniformed dental officers, serving in the Indian Health Service (IHS), U.S. Coast Guard, Federal Bureau of Prisons and the National Health Service Corps. While their uniforms are derived from those of the U.S. Navy, the Commissioned Corps is under the Department of Health and Human Services, overseen by the U.S. Surgeon General, rather than under the Department of Defense. While the Commissioned Corps is not an armed service, officers may have the opportunity to assist in public health responses to man-made and natural disasters. Officers receive the same benefits as their counterparts in the military.

“I talked with my wife,” Dr. Vos remembers, “and she vetoed the idea of someplace geographically isolated, so I broadened my search.” Today Dr. Vos is a Lieutenant Commander in the corps, practicing dentistry at a correctional facility in North Carolina.

Geography was an important consideration for Dr. Gabrielle Hung. “I grew up in Seattle and did both undergrad and dental school at University of Washington. After finishing dental school and completing my obligation with the Air Force, I was looking for an opportunity close to home, which is how I ended up at this duty station serving the Coast Guard in Seattle.”

While some officers come to the Commissioned Corps after exploring other paths in dentistry, others know even before dental school. “As a child, my grandmother went to Indian Health Services,” remembers Dr. Scott Williams. “Later on, during my undergraduate education, I did internships with the IHS, so I knew that was where I wanted my career to go after dental school.”

Dr. Williams notes that there are many misconceptions about the day-to-day experiences of dentists in the Commissioned Corps. “Certainly we do extractions and emergency care, but we do a wide range of procedures — I’m one of four general dentists on a staff that includes a pediatric dentist, an oral surgeon and two hygienists.”

“For the most part I serve a population that has low oral-health literacy and little access to dental care ,” observes Dr. Vos, “ There is a lot of advanced disease processes. I do a lot of nuts and bolts dentistry, some endo, a lot of removable prosthetics.”

“My schedule is about 90% patient care, with the remaining 10% working on administrative duties that help ensure our facility is running smoothly and in accordance with our guidelines,” Dr. Hung explains. “When I’m at work, I work very hard, but my quality of life is very good because my job allows me to keep a healthy balance between work and personal life.”

“We work a Monday-Friday schedule, with 30 paid days of leave per year, plus all the major Federal holidays,” adds Dr. Vos. “And there are some very nice benefits. For instance, we’re eligible for the Montgomery G.I. Bill, so I’ve been working on my Masters in Public Health.”

The basic requirements for joining the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps are to be a U.S. native or naturalized citizen under age 44, meeting current medical and security requirements. Dentists must hold an active license to practice dentistry as well as a D.D.S. or D.M.D. from a program accredited by the ADA. Like their dentist counterparts in the Armed Services, Commissioned Corps dentists are eligible for ADA Federal Dental Services membership. They can join directly through the ADA, and in some cases they may be eligible to join through the tripartite, holding membership at the local, state and national levels. FDS members also qualify for the ADA Reduced Dues Program for recent dental school graduates.

“I plan on making a career with U.S. Public Health Service,” notes Dr. Williams, “I might continue to focus on clinical dentistry, or I could develop my interest in administration or policy. I like that there are opportunities to explore and to test myself.”

Learn more about U.S. Public Health Service at USPHS.gov, and about Federal Dental Service membership at ADA.org/fds.

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