Naty Lopez is Associate Professor and Assistant Dean, Admissions and Diversity, University of Minnesota School of Dentistry; Joanna Sager is Field Coordinator, University of Minnesota Twin Cities and Office of Admissions and Diversity, University of Minnesota School of Dentistry; and Adele Gonzaga is Research Assistant, University of Minnesota College of Continuing and Professional Studies. [Email]
Few dental graduates are choosing to practice in rural areas, thereby aggravating the shortage of dentists in rural communities. The aim of this study was to identify factors that may motivate dental and dental therapy students to commit to rural practice. This qualitative study used a triangulation of data sources: students' reflection papers on their rural community experience, transcripts of focus groups with students, and personal statements submitted by three cohorts of student participants in a rural dentistry program in a U.S. dental school in 2016, 2017, and 2018. Common themes emerged in each data source, and a congruence of themes from the three data sources was identified: corrected misconceptions of rural dental practice, the gravity of lack of access to care, quality of relationships between practitioners and patients and within the dental team, and the role of dentists in alleviating health disparities. Students cited the critical role dentists play in stimulating interest to consider dentistry as a career and in inspiring rural practice after graduation. Immersion in a rural community under the mentorship of a rural dentist may correct misconceptions and attract students to rural practice. This study's results suggest that dental schools need to provide students with more opportunities to witness the practice of rural dentists and experience rural living in order to draw them towards rural practice after graduation.