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Dominion Post features WVU School of Dentistry rural health program

Article: Something to smile about

The Dominion Post

Something to smile about
Published February 22, 2024
From WVU Today

Students in the West Virginia University School of Dentistry are learning to be service-oriented practitioners while discovering solutions that reduce oral health disparities in West Virginia. Hands-on experiences such as those in the School’s Rural Rotation, which recently celebrated 30 years of outreach, are not only beneficial for students learning about rural practice, but also the patients they serve.

“Our School of Dentistry was a pioneer in the development of this type of integrated outreach and has made this service-learning program one of a kind and one to emulate,” Dr. Valerie Perrine, associate dean for student affairs, community health and outreach, said. “It is the premiere model nationwide thanks to the vision and care taken to form, cultivate and grow the program coupled with the unwavering Mountaineer spirit and loyalty of our WVU alums, and the commitment to service from our School of Dentistry students.”

Three decades in the making

The beginnings of the rural health program started in 1991 when faculty within the School recognized the unique needs of patients in West Virginia and the importance of teaching rural dental care to the next generation of practitioners.

A grant from the Kellogg Foundation originally intended to provide training opportunities for medical students was expanded to include the School of Dentistry as a way to increase efforts across WVU Health Sciences. Instead of building an on-site clinic, faculty reached out to practices across the state to provide students with hands-on experiences.

What started as three practice sites quickly grew as more offices wanted to become involved in working with students. Today, the School collaborates with more than 90 dental practices in the state.

As part of required curriculum, both dental surgery and dental hygiene students complete a rural rotation in a private practice setting in West Virginia as a service-based learning opportunity that supports the School’s mission of increasing access to care and retaining practitioners in rural parts of the state. The clinical partners provide operatory space, patients and often a dental assistant for students during their rotation, allowing students to develop skills and learn about providers’ role in the community.

Students completing the rotation are placed at a practice site for six to eight weeks where they can also develop skills in hiring, training, supervising as well as appointment control, maintaining patient accounts and fee establishment.

The program has impacted more than 275,000 individuals and provided more than 286,000 dental procedures to patients across the state.

Creating lasting impact through hands-on experience

For fourth-year Doctor of Dental Surgery student Zach Lynn, the rural rotation has been a valuable experience for building upon the skills learned in the classroom.

Lynn, who completed a rotation during the fall 2023 semester at Tebay & Associates in Vienna, explains that the hands-on experience has helped him feel more confident in performing procedures and working with patients.

“I’ve gotten to see different kinds of procedures and have learned that I’m capable of doing them,” he said. “I’ve gotten so much practice, and I feel a lot more confident in my ability.”

A native of Parkersburg, Lynn has always had an interest in healthcare and ultimately chose to study dentistry after shadowing at the same practice he completed the rural rotation.

“It was actually shadowing in this office where I kind of fell in love with dentistry,” Lynn said. “I looked at other professions, but here we’re able to change people’s smiles, we’re able to make them happier, have a better quality of life, and then we also get to be a little artistic in our work.”

Owner of Tebay & Associates and WVU School of Dentistry graduate, Dr. Harry Talbott Tebay (‘70), says he chose to partner with the School as a rural rotation site to provide students with valuable hands-on experience. He believes that being in a real-world setting is necessary to prepare students for practice after graduation.

“I remember when I wanted to practice in a clinic and didn’t have anywhere to go because there wasn’t a rural rotation program,” he said. “They get great teaching and great skills. When they come, they’re being exposed to conditions that they would never get in a classroom.”

Dr. Matthew Stump (‘11, ‘12), who also practices at Tebay & Associates and is a WVU graduate, says that the rural rotation allows opportunities for mentorship between alumni and current students.

“Even though we have these students for a shorter period of time, the impact is very meaningful in terms of what it does and being able to mentor and give back what you received,” he said. “It’s kind of a chain that helps form and create that next generation of dentists and the level of care you want to provide to patients.”

He says the rural rotation is also a chance for students to learn more about the career of dentistry and meet other practitioners from around the state.

“This is the 30th anniversary of this program, and the success of it can’t be denied,” Stump said. “The impact that it’s had is not only from the standpoint of training future clinicians – it’s helping facilitate career movement for them and networking capabilities. It’s multi-faceted, and the student is benefitting greatly from the experience, but also the community they’re working in as well.”


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