UMKC School of Dentistry and alumni rising to meet the need in rural communities
By BRYCE PUNTENNEY
Only 10 of the 219 counties that make up Missouri and Kansas have enough dental care providers, according to the Rural Health Information Hub. The majority of these dental deserts are in rural communities, which, historically, face challenges in recruiting health-care professionals.
The UMKC School of Dentistry is working to end this dental drought through a number of measures, including a new scholarship aimed at students from rural areas. The scholarship is enabling its first recipient, third year dental student Katie Roe, to fulfill her dream of owning a practice back in her hometown.
Roe’s path to a dental career began in middle school. She and her mother visited their town’s only dentist, Lynn Otte (D.D.S. ’79), to discuss what kind of opportunities the field of dentistry could hold for a young girl from Herington, Kansas.
Through the years, Roe and Otte formed a connection and began discussing plans for Roe to eventually take over Otte’s practice. Roe had always envisioned owning a practice in Herington, but was considering working for another dentist while she paid off her school costs. That is, until she found out she’d be the first recipient of the Dan Root Memorial Scholarship. Now she plans to buy the practice after she graduates.
“I still remember that first discussion we had about dentistry,” Otte said. “And Katie’s just kept working in that direction ever since, which has been wonderful.”
The scholarship was established by Glenda Root in honor of her late husband, Dan, who founded Root Dental Laboratory, where he worked closely with many UMKC dentistry alumni. The transformational scholarship will cover a full year of Roe’s tuition. It doesn’t end with her. Thanks to the Roots’ donation, UMKC estimates it will be able to award three or four full-tuition scholarships annually, beginning next year.
The scholarships will go to students with a demonstrated financial need, with preference given to students from rural areas.
“This scholarship allows me to focus on what’s most important to me — helping people,” Roe said. “It doesn’t just impact me; it impacts my immediate family, my future family, the patients. The ripple effect of this scholarship is amazing.”
Roe has long been dedicated to her hometown of Herington, about 50 miles south of Manhattan, Kansas, population 2,129. Her loyalty was solidified when her brother was diagnosed with a serious health issue and the people in Herington rallied behind her family.
“Everyone in town stepped up to help us in our time of need,” she said.
Encouraging rural Roos
Richard Bigham, assistant dean for student programs at the UMKC School of Dentistry, said he hopes lifting some of the financial burden will make scholarship recipients more willing to return to their rural roots and fill the need. Many students worry whether they can maximize their earning potential in rural areas.
According to Dean Steven Haas, practices in rural areas show lower gross income compared to urban practices. The flip side is that urban practices can suffer greater losses and failure rates due to overhead costs and competition, among other things. Haas said that a newly opened rural practice can be financially successful in one year and subsequently generate a stable earning for a dentist.
These shortages are not limited to dentistry, as the entire health-care field is grappling with a maldistribution of health-care providers. Beyond scholarships, Haas said the school has incorporated courses into its curriculum that explore some of the challenges rural populations face, such as the Community-Based Dental Education course.
The school is also working to get students out to rural areas through some of these courses, particularly through externships at community health centers across Missouri and Kansas. According to Melanie Simmer-Beck (R.D.H. ’94, Ph.D. ’13), each year, about half of the thirdand fourth-year students who take the class choose health-care centers based in rural communities, and a number of them come back with job offers in-hand.
Simmer-Beck is both the chair of Dental Public Health and Behavior Sciences and the director of the UMKC Students Training in Academia, Health and Research (STAHR) Dental Scholars program at the School of Dentistry. STAHR is a pipeline program that addresses shortages in both rural and urban areas of Missouri. The program also includes the schools of medicine and pharmacy, and focuses on increasing the number of students from economically and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds, while helping students better prepare for the rigors of health sciences programs.
“The dental school has always been committed to seeking out students who come from rural areas, hoping they have a strong desire to return and give back,” Haas said. “Scholarships like the Dan Root Memorial Scholarship are an amazing act of philanthropy.”
Ample opportunity for alumni
Justin (D.D.S. ’07) and Sadie (B.S.D.H. ’05) Ebersole began mapping out their plans for practicing in a rural area on their first date, when they were students at the UMKC School of Dentistry.
“He told me, ‘I’m a small-town boy and I’m going to a small town in Kansas, so if you want to live in the city, you should probably move on,’” Sadie said.
They’ve made for a great “small town team” ever since. The Ebersoles own Parsons Dental Care in Parsons, Kansas. Justin is the practicing dentist. Sadie started as a hygienist, but has transitioned to office manager, while still practicing one or two days a week.
The couple settled on Parsons, near Justin’s family farm in neighboring Chautauqua County, because they found a practice that met all their criteria. After graduation, they joined the practice in Parsons and acquired sole ownership in 2020.
“We did some serious research when evaluating practices,” Justin said. “I would strongly encourage people to look at all the numbers: how many active patients, how many dentists are in that town and the surrounding area.”
The Ebersoles agree the most rewarding part of owning a smalltown practice is getting to know their patients. In the years they’ve been in Parsons, they’ve been able to watch families form and kids grow up.
“Those bonds that you build are so cool,” Justin said. “I see great-grandparents, grandparents and all the way down.”
It also doesn’t hurt that business is good. The Ebersoles hope practitioners realize the significant need in these rural areas also means opportunity.
“We have no need for an advertising budget,” Justin said. “There are more patients than you can ever handle. I never imagined how well we would do. That’s been a huge bonus.”
While it may be a bonus, Sadie stresses the decision to practice in a rural area shouldn’t only be a financial choice. According to her, a practitioner considering a rural setting needs to feel a personal connection to the area. The Ebersoles love how immersed they are in the Parsons community.
“I would just encourage people to maybe step outside their box and go to some of these places that are rural and are looking for a dentist. Just give it a chance,” Justin said. “Be open minded about all the benefits of living in a small town.”
“This scholarship allows me to focus on what’s most important to me — helping people.”
— KATIE ROE, D.D.S. CLASS OF 2024