Dentistry in the U.S. Navy

Traditionally, many students graduate after four years of dental school and enter a residency or the civilian workforce. However, there is another group of dental school graduates who will serve in the military following graduation. Many of these graduates were awarded a scholarship from the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP).

HPSP recipients are awarded a three- or four-year scholarship to cover the expense of dental school. In a lot of cases, the scholarship allows students to graduate debt-free. The Army, Navy and Air Force all provide scholarships to dental students. In addition to scholarships, all branches of the military offer new graduates an opportunity to enter the military through the direct accession program.

For students enrolled in the HPSP, there is much to look forward to. For dental students, like me, who do not know the specifics of military dentistry, here is what I learned.

Since dental school graduation, Dr. Peter Ham and Dr. Daniel Hammer have served and continued their post-graduate education with the Navy. Dr. Ham completed his dental training at New York University and is currently an endodontic resident at the University of Washington. Dr. Hammer graduated from the University of the Pacific, completed an oral surgery residency through the Navy at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and is looking forward to a fellowship in head and neck cancer reconstruction.

Both Drs. Ham and Hammer note that the best part of their jobs is their ability to offer each service member they treat the ideal treatment plan. Because dental services are covered by TRICARE, they can provide their patients the best individual care without their patient’s finances being a primary concern. They also do not have to worry about the pressure created by a practice’s overhead on patient treatment planning and scheduling. This means more time to learn and grow at the rate needed to progress clinically. The main goal is to ensure each patient gets the best definitive treatment possible so they can maintain military readiness. Our service members often go long periods of time without a dentist.

Dr. Ham discussed certain dental considerations for the Navy, including the risk for trauma that occurs on ships and increased caries due to a change in diet. In an operational environment (ships, aircraft, etc.), service members are naturally at a greater risk for facial and dental trauma. Dr. Ham has treated many trauma cases during his time aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. Treating and studying trauma ultimately inspired him to pursue endodontics. Many sailors enlist with or develop restorative, prosthodontic, endodontic or oral surgery needs. Orthodontic and other elective treatments are only provided when the service member is not operational. Because the military is a 24-hour operation, staying alert and on task during long and late hours often has an influence on the patient’s dietary choices. To compensate for the consumption of sugary and acidic caffeinated drinks, the dentists strongly emphasize patient education and oral hygiene instruction.

The leadership provided by a Naval dental officer is essential to providing exceptional patient care in an operational environment. As a past District 11 trustee, Dr. Hammer emphasized the impact ASDA’s national leadership training had on his ability to lead a team in the Navy. Military officers carry the responsibility of leading the enlisted service members and require skills to mobilize their teams toward a common goal. He says the ability for a clinician to provide good dentistry in the military is expected, but strong leadership is what makes you a great Navy dentist.

Dr. Hammer stresses the importance of leadership not only because of the skills needed for officer duties, but also because the methods of incentivizing his team differ from civilian dentistry. Outside of the military, dentists pay their staff directly and can use salary and bonuses as incentives. However, in the military, leadership is earned. They do not pay their staff directly, so it takes skill to guide the team toward a common vision.

Being a military dentist is not without challenges. Both dentists mentioned sacrificing time away from friends and family. In addition, service members must be willing to take on assignments that dictate where they and their families live. Aside from time and distance from loved ones, military dentistry carries unique operational challenges such as long hours and early morning wake-up calls for emergencies.

Despite the challenges, Drs. Ham and Hammer have gained unique experiences from serving that have helped them develop strong leadership skills, well-rounded clinical skills and a larger worldview. Ultimately, remembering the bigger picture and using a dental career to serve our country in a higher capacity distinguishes military dentistry from any other experience.

~ Christine Chen, Washington ’19, District 10 Trustee

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About Christine Chen

Christine Chen is a second year student at the University of Washington. She currently serves as ASDA's District 10 trustee. Service in the community is hugely important to her, and she loves to do dental volunteering, as well as serving in the community with her church. Outside of school, she enjoys baking delicious treats, salsa dancing the night away, and her favorite philanthropic cause is domestic violence awareness.

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