Rural Dentistry Track Early Decision Program

Rural Dentistry Track Early Decision Program

John E. Lueth, D.D.S.*:

Where is it that you practice a metropolitan or urban location? Or is it in some setting other than that? If you are not in one of Minnesota’s larger cities or its environs, you would likely be categorized as having a rural practice. But don’t let this simple descriptive word “rural” define a single or simple image. The varied and vast range of rural practice styles and opportunities practically defies categorization. From the dentist whose operatories reveal views of Leech Lake, Lake of the Woods, or Lake Superior, to a daily drive to work that winds through the beautiful bluffs and coulees of Southeastern Minnesota, or the stunning spectacle and vistas of the iron mining landscape of “the Range”, Aspen Parkland of the northwest, the world’s richest soil of the Red River Valley and the grandeur of the rolling prairie grasslands — all of these beautiful Minnesota settings and more find dental practices thriving in their midst. But although geography, geology, landscape, or vegetation may be what lend character to a place, it is the humans who choose to live in these locations which provide the inhabitants with richness and depth and define their culture and sense of place.


Now think back to why or how you chose to practice where you currently do. What shaped your decision making? Were there values you felt were important to choosing a place to live and work? Did you return to the community of your youth or family? Are activities of the area important to you or your family? Was it time to seek a change from the lifestyle you had lived until then? Did you simply need to work?


Obviously many factors could influence the practice location and style decisions of any dentist. Knowing the full range of practice options informs the decision-making. Choosing wisely and after careful consideration means satisfaction and success in the practice of dentistry will be much more likely. Not guaranteed to be a lead pipe cinch, but you’ll have a better chance.


There are many dentists who have returned to practice in the region in which they were raised, oftentimes a rural setting. Some have chosen to be in a particular community due to an interest in the lifestyle advantages, pace, or opportunities afforded them in an outstate practice. And some dentists know that in very many rural regions of the state they will never lack for patients nor fail to be successful as well as have a positive influence in the community.


Fortunately there are men and women who choose to practice dentistry in rural areas. Unfortunately, there remains a need for more to do so. In some places the shortage of providers is severe and the needs of the population are great. How to connect the two - people looking toward a career in dentistry and considering outstate, and the needs of certain of Minnesota’s rural population having difficulty finding a dentist nearby?


One means for not only informing those interested in focusing their education on the goal of becoming a dentist, but gaining valuable assistance and experience in achieving this goal, is provided by the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry through its “Rural Dentistry Track: An Early Decision Program”.


What is the Early Decision Rural Dentistry Track Program? It is a program for students who are strongly oriented to a career in dentistry and to practicing dentistry in a rural area. This is an opportunity for students as early as the completion of their first year of college to qualify for provisional acceptance into the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry’s DDS program. Although it could be viewed solely from the perspective of educating students about the realities of, and opportunities existent in, non-urban practice situations (i.e., the many great dental practice opportunities in “rural” Minnesota), its genesis was the effort to assist in addressing the rural access to dental care issue facing the state. “When compared with those who live in urban areas, people living in rural Minnesota have a more difficult time finding a dentist to care for them.” Several areas of Minnesota suffer from severe shortages of dentists. Some counties have no dentist at all. Patients sometimes must travel great distances for dental treatment. There are many dentists in rural communities nearing retirement whose communities will require replacements for them. And overall, the dental workforce in rural Minnesota needs to be increased to meet the needs of the population.


For years this concern about an access to dental care has stimulated approaches and solutions to address the problem. These have included some “carrot and stick” ideas as well as some “carry a big stick” measures. But in addition, there have been innovative and creative strategies such as the outreach clinics in Hibbing and Willmar which not only provide access for area patients, but provide valuable aspects of the training for new dentists by exposing them to ways of practicing outside of the School of Dentistry and in non-urban areas. Creative collaborations in other parts of the state have attracted dentists to the northeast through innovative loan forgiveness plans, and establishment of non-profit community dental access clinics for public assistance recipients in Bemidji, Park Rapids, and the Red River Valley.


To help with this need for building of the workforce, the School of Dentistry has introduced the Early Decision Rural Dentistry Track Program. Supported by a grant from HRSA/MDH along with a match from a community, an entity, or a dentist, the program enables the School of Dentistry DDS Admissions committee to offer admission to the program for up to three students as determined through a selection process.


Dr. Naty Lopez, Assistant Dean for Admissions and Diversity, U of M School of Dentistry, oversees this program, which is directed at undergraduate college students who are considering a career in dentistry and practicing in a rural area.


What will this Rural Track program allow a student to do?
The student:

  • will be provisionally accepted to the U of M School of Dentistry’s DDS program pending successful completion of the three-year Early Decision Rural Track program and its requirements.
  • may participate in the Summer Dental School Experience, a one-week intensive program that introduces dentistry as a career option to college students and prepares them to be successful applicants to the dental school.
  • enjoys mentoring and internships with students and faculty at the SOD who also have an interest in rural dentistry.
  • can stay focused on a career path that will increase the likelihood of being successful in a rural community after graduation.
  • completes a summer internship at a rural dental practice during dental school.
  • receives a $10,000 scholarship from the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH)/Health Resources and Science Administration (HRSA) and the rural community from which the student receives support.


Eligibility requirements for the Early Decision Rural Track Dentistry Program include the following:

  • The applicant must have a strong commitment to practice in a rural area after graduation.
  • The applicant must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident (with preference given for Minnesota residents).
  • A letter of support is needed. This can come from a prominent individual or group within the rural community, and it should confirm the student’s orientation to the rural community. It should also confirm that the leader or group will provide a $2,500 renewable scholarship during the final three years of undergraduate schooling.
  • The applicant must have a 3.4 overall GPA and 3.2 science GPA at the end of the first year of college.
  • The applicant must spend at least 30 hours shadowing in a rural dentistry practice.

To complete the Rural Dentistry Program, accepted students must:

  • continue to be enrolled in college and complete all course prerequisites and electives for DDS application.
  • maintain a 3.4 overall GPA and 3.2 science GPA or higher throughout the undergraduate career.
  • take the DAT and obtain an average score of 18 or above in all its subjects.
  • continue shadowing a dental practitioner.
  • complete a community project.


There are currently two students in the program who are interested in dentistry as a career. Both attend Bemidji State University, and each has been actively recruited and assisted in the finding of community support by the Northwestern Minnesota Area Health Education Center Director Ms. Joan Tronson.


Going hand in hand with the establishment of such a program and selection of students by the SOD, there are needs of the Rural Track. These are needs which can be addressed by a practicing dentist with the willingness to contribute to the success of encouraging rural practice. The students in the Rural Track program greatly benefit from a mentor relationship where they can learn about rural dental practice. Additionally, ideas or strategies for community or local oral health projects for the students are needed. These can be suggested by anyone, not just a mentor, who has an idea for a project or knows of a need which may be fulfilled through conducting a local project.


Included in the goals of the MDA’s Rural Health Care Committee are a number of issues which are related to those of the Early Decision Rural Track program and the encouragement of rural dental practice. The RHCC is committed to discovering innovative rural recruitment strategies — to include means of connecting practicing and/or retiring dentists with opportunities with students, graduates, or other dentists looking for opportunities; to providing a resource for communities and rural dentists to know how to roll out the red carpet to dentists and students showing interest in practicing in their community; to pursuing more types of dental loan forgiveness programs and encouraging creativity in establishing them; to providing information to MDA members to inform and educate about the needs, the opportunities, and the programs available to encourage more dentists to choose non-urban practice locations; and specifically to inform them about the Rural Track Early Decision Program.


For those students oriented toward dentistry and in a rural location who want to enter or establish a practice to their liking — not just one to provide them with employment — as well as for the practitioner preparing to retire from a rural practice, or the community desiring to have a dentist for its citizens, the Early Decision Rural Dentistry Track Program may just be one great way to reach their goal.


Applications are accepted on a yearly basis. Check out the School of Dentistry website at more and current information and specifics about application to the Early Decision Program. You may also contact the Office of Admissions and Diversity, University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, 15-163 Moos Science Tower, 515 Delaware Street SE, Minneapolis, MN 55455; telephone (612) 625-7477; fax (612) 624-0882; e-mail:


*Dr. Lueth is chair of the Minnesota Dental Association’s Rural Health Care Committee. He is a general dentist in private practice in Bemidji, Minnesota. E-mail is