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UB dental school program seeks to inspire more Native Americans to pursue dentistry

August 20, 2019

Future dentists: From left, Dr. Joseph Salamon, director of the Native American Pre-Dental Student Gateway Program, poses with this year’s five participants: Carla Tahe, Dimitri Mahee, Annbella Thompson, Hunter Jolicoeur and Jalisa Whitehorse. Photos by Cass McAllister 
Buffallo, N.Y. — In an effort to increase the number of Native American dentists, the University at Buffalo School of Dental Medicine in June hosted five undergraduate students and introduced them to the various disciplines and specialties within the dental profession.

According to the American Dental Education Association, nearly 10,500 students applied to dental school this fall. Of those, only 16 were Native American. In addition, Native Americans comprise 3% of the country’s population but only make up 0.2% of dentists, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The Native American Pre-Dental Student Gateway program, an initiative between the dental school and Seneca Nation Health System now in its second year, seeks to address that disparity.

Explore: Fourth-year University at Buffalo dental student Richard Salvagno, left, works with program participant Jalisa Whitehorse. 
“Simply put, there are not enough Native American students pursuing a career in dentistry,” said Dr. Joseph Salamon, program director and dental services director for Seneca Nation Health System and clinical instructor in the UB dental school, in a news release.  “This program — which is open to Native American students and Indian Health Services dental staff — is a unique dental school pipeline in the United States.

Held this year from June 24-28, the students took crash courses in hands-on clinical techniques, participated in an oral surgery boot camp and toured local oral health care product manufacturers. They also spoke with current dental students and received guidance on applying to dental school and financial aid.

The program aims to expand to 15 students next year and to offer similar internships for students interested in other medical fields.

Jenna Middlebrooks, DrPH, program co-founder, said that there are 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. These barriers, she added, make it incredibly difficult to be guided into a highly specialized health care field such as dentistry.

“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,” Dr. Middlebrooks said.