When you’ve grown up in a town with a population totaling 9,074 people, wanting to become a dentist at the age of 12 might seem a bit far-fetched. What I didn’t realize at the time was how a rural hometown would benefit me in the process of becoming a dentist, as well as when I return home to practice after graduation.
The dentists that have become my mentors are a husband and wife team, and they have known my family since I was in preschool. They have invested their attention in me for years and shown me the ropes of a dental practice. Since they both grew up in my little hometown, they knew exactly the position I would be in going into school. They also told me how financially beneficial it could be to come back and work in my hometown after graduation. They explained to me that there are debt forgiveness programs for practicing dentists that work in communities with limited access to health care, including dental care. After researching this topic on the ADA website, I found that the National Health Service Corps is an option for some students. The NHSC offers loan repayment assistance in amounts up to $50,000 (tax-free) for two years of full-time service in an area that the NHSC approves as a Health Professional Shortage Area. The ADA site also mentions that “with continued service, all providers may be able to pay off their student loans.”
While the availability of loan repayment is a wonderful financial option for those wanting to practice in rural areas, there are other factors that mean much more than money ever could. These additional benefits may not be for everyone. But for some, the benefits of practicing in a small town can transform a workplace into a home. My dentist mentors are extremely active in our small community, and it has served them well. While many dentists take on the task of being an active community member, the role is very different in a small town versus a large city. A practicing dentist in a small town has the opportunity to see his or her patients at church, the grocery store or at a Friday night football game. In a rural area, having that kind of relationship with your patients can bring them in door, enrich your interactions with them and in turn bring more business into your practice.
Additionally, a practice in a small town often has a family atmosphere. Your kids are likely to go to school with your patients’ kids. You may have patients and friends who knew each other as kids. The elderly population you treat will have watched you grow up. Everybody really does know everybody. Some dentists want to leave work at work and separate their job lives from their home lives. However, many others may enjoy building and maintaining the relationships that a rural practice fosters.
If you have never considered a rural area as a place to set up shop, I urge you to consider it. There are many positive sides that you may not have considered before. For the right person, life in a small-town practice can be a dream come true.
~ Andrea Smith, Georgia ’19