New partnership ‘a huge public service’

UNC Adams School of Dentistry and MAHEC are aligning education and public service to bring oral health care to rural populations.

A dentist and a patient at a dental office at MAHEC.

UNC Adams School of Dentistry and MAHEC are aligning education and public service to bring oral health care to rural populations.

UNC Adams School of Dentistry and MAHEC are aligning education and public service to bring oral health care to rural populations.

The Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalachian Trail both wind their way through mountains in Western North Carolina. Now, so does a select group of Carolina dentistry students who are passionate about serving rural populations.

UNC Adams School of Dentistry partnered with Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC) to establish the Rural Oral Health ScholarsOpens in new window program, a curriculum for dental students who are interested in practicing in rural areas of the state.

MAHEC welcomed the first cohort of scholars from the Adams School of Dentistry this fall.

MAHEC's Rural Oral Health Scholars pose in front of a Mission Children's Hospital bus.

“These UNC dentistry students have chosen to learn with us in Western North Carolina because it aligns their education with their future plans to bring care to rural communities, and rural care is a primary focus here at MAHEC,” said Jeff Heck, M.D., CEO of MAHEC. “Our first cohort of students are loving their first weeks here, and so are our patients.”

A portrait of Marla O'Neal, a Rural Oral Health Scholar at MAHEC

Marla O’Neal, D.D.S. candidate

Among this first cohort is Marla O’Neal, a fourth-year doctor of dental surgery candidate from Mayodan, North Carolina, a small town about 30 minutes north of Greensboro.

“Where I’m from, I’m used to working with rural populations, and I want to work in a similar area when I graduate,” said O’Neal, who added that she is extremely grateful for the opportunity to work with patients at MAHEC. “I get more exposure to the types of cases I’ll see when I start my own practice.”

Rotating between MAHEC’s two dental centers in Asheville and Columbus, the scholars gain the hands-on experience they need to graduate while providing much-needed services to the local populace. Of the 16 counties MAHEC serves in Western North Carolina, 12 are federally designated dental health professional shortage areas.

A portrait of Katherine Jowers, DDS

Katherine Jowers, D.D.S.

“The disparity in Western North Carolina is greater than in much of the state,” said Katherine Jowers, D.D.S., an associate professor at the Adams School of Dentistry who chairs the Department of Dentistry and Oral Health at MAHEC and directs the Rural Oral Health Scholars program. “There is a great need for oral health care that is accessible and affordable, and we also need to train dentists who particularly understand this problem and want to help.”

Directing the Rural Oral Health Scholars program is the perfect position for Jowers. Originally from Western North Carolina, she spent 20 years conducting rural outreach with Mission Hospital before she was recruited to run a learning center for East Carolina University’s School of Dental Medicine in Spruce Pine, North Carolina. When MAHEC and the UNC Adams School of Dentistry began their partnership, Jowers was called to lead the effort.

“There’s no big medical or dental teaching institution in Western North Carolina,” she noted. “MAHEC has grown to fill that void, and that now includes this new western outpost for dentistry.

“I’m happy and impressed and proud that the Adams School of Dentistry has chosen to pursue this partnership with MAHEC. It’s not only an education path for students — it’s a huge public service. Dentistry at Carolina has been a top program for as long as dental schools have existed. For UNC to try something innovative and a little bit unconventional, to create a new solution to a problem — it’s a big deal.”

How to help

Donations to the Dr. Claude A. Adams Jr. Extramural Rotations FundOpens in new window support clinical rotations for UNC Adams School of Dentistry students so they can meet their graduation requirements and go on to serve patients in North Carolina and beyond.

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