An inside look at working in public health dentistry

Think back to your personal statement for dental school. What did you say in it? My bet is that you mentioned something about your desire to help people. About how you knew a dentist somewhere who helped someone in a way that only a dentist could. About how that experience planted in you a desire to do the same thing. That one day, you hoped to be a dentist who not only did that for every one of your patients but also for the world!

OK, so maybe you said it with more tact or with less drama, but I have read enough prospective student personal statements to know that a good number of applicants include that to some extent. Now imagine if that dream came true. Imagine you didn’t have to worry about student debt. Or about running a business. Or do anything other than what you originally wanted to do: help people. To focus on dentistry and nothing else. Well, that’s what I do every day. And for some reason, it is one of paths least traveled.

Public health is the hidden gem of the dental profession. Not only can it give you freedom from student debt through loan repayment and scholarship programs, but it can also give you the freedom to practice without outside pressures attempting to influence your clinical decisions.

My own path to public health started with one of those scholarships. I was awarded a four-year scholarship from the National Health Service Corps. It allowed me to graduate from dental school with little to no loans, and it paid 100 percent of my tuition and fees, in addition to giving me a living stipend each month for other expenses. In turn, I gave a year-for-year public health service commitment.

Working in public health has its pros and cons, just like any other field. Most public health jobs come with decent pay and amazing benefits (health/life/malpractice insurance, retirement plan, etc.). Add in a set salary (aka a lifetime “minimum income guarantee” as they call it in private practice) and subtract pressure to produce and run a business (which most of us haven’t been trained for), and you have yourself a pretty fulfilling career. It is also clinically stimulating. Contrary to popular belief, it is not all extractions. In fact, I would say that my treatment plans are some of the most complex you’ll see.

A typical day for me is filled with a well-rounded sample of procedures. My schedule reads like the chapter headings of a general dentistry textbook: examinations, restorations, extractions, endodontics, removable prosthetics, fixed prosthetics, etc. You would be hard-pressed to find a day where I was bored or wasn’t being challenged in one way or another. And the best part? I do the best dentistry I can for the patient, regardless of insurance, his or her ability to pay or anything else that might hinder me because of discount programs and government grants that allow me to do that. And that feels good. Think of it as not occasionally volunteering at your state’s Mission of Mercy, but working there full-time.

Of course, there are cons, too. If you are business-minded or entrepreneurially inclined, the lack of control for certain things may frustrate you. Does my organization need better marketing and public relations? Absolutely. And I wish I could help with that, along with a number of other things, but the managerial and administrative issues are not my domain. But this also has an upside. Not being able to do something about those things also means that I don’t have to do something about other things. Angry patient? “Let me get the clinic manager for you.” Employee conflict? “How about we get HR on the phone?” Insurance issue? “Here is the number to our billing department.” And I can go home knowing that whatever the issue is, it will be taken care of.

In the time that I have been practicing at my clinic, I have already seen so many lives changed due to programs that we have as a community health clinic. These patients, who most likely couldn’t afford to receive care anywhere else, are not at all shy about expressing their gratitude, often with tear-filled eyes. This is where the real giving back happens, where I can do what I was trained to do and what I enjoy most. Where those who don’t have the privilege of private dental insurance can find hope and quality care at an affordable price. Thinking back to the reasons why I wanted to become a dentist, it is hard to imagine myself practicing anywhere else.

~Dr. Kyle Larsen, Colorado ’17, National Health Service Corps 

This blog post is the last in a series focused on career paths you can take after graduating dental school, as part of ASDA’s inaugural Career Week. Explore residency, specialties, associateships, buying a practice and non-traditional careers via webinars, blog posts and social media content all this week.

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About Dr. Kyle Larsen

Dr. Kyle Larsen, Colorado '17, is a National Health Service Corps Scholar and currently works for a community health clinic in rural Colorado. While in dental school, he held various positions within ASDA including chapter president and 2015-2016 District 9 trustee. He also is the president of the Southeastern Colorado Dental Society.

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