Ohio State Dental Journal

Preparing to CARE for Underserved Communities

Eight first-year dental students are participating in the new CARE Program. Front (from left): Rachel Salen and Brandi Lantz. Back (from left): Patrick Haren, William Vu, Fuad Farah, Brandon Whitecotton, and John Savopoulos. Not pictured: Eli Strahler. Front (from left): Rachel Salen and Brandi Lantz. Back (from left): Patrick Haren, William Vu, Fuad Farah, Brandon Whitecotton, and John Savopoulos. Not pictured: Eli Strahler.

As part of a land-grant university that serves as a flagship for the state, the College of Dentistry takes seriously its responsibility to help increase access to dental care throughout Ohio. That means assisting in filling the dental professional shortages in underserved areas with the college’s well-trained graduates.

Enter the Commitment to Access Resources and Education (CARE) program: a first-of-its-kind initiative created by the college to recruit students from Ohio’s underserved communities and federally-designated Dental Professional Shortage Areas who are most likely to help improve access to dental care by establishing practices in those areas after graduation.

For students like John Savopoulos ’22 (DDS), one of eight inaugural CARE program participants among this year’s new dental class, the program is preparing him to meet the needs of dental patients when he returns to practice in his hometown of Warren, Ohio — the seat of Trumbull County. “To my surprise, there are a lot of areas that are short-handed in the state of Ohio,” says Savopoulos. “In the affluent sections of town, there may be dentists everywhere. In the areas where there’s not even a grocery store, there’s no access to dental care at all.”

He hopes to help remedy that when he returns to Warren to set up his own dental practice. “I'd like to be able to take care of anybody who comes to my door. As with any health care professional, that's your duty. That's why you go to school — to take care of people who need your expertise. I think that goes for everybody, not just the bottom or the top of the economic ladder.”

Dr. Patrick Lloyd, dean of the College of Dentistry, said the CARE program is a reflection of the college’s recent growth. Thanks to funding from the state, the university and loyal donors, the college is adding 132,000 square feet of new clinic and classroom space that will accommodate a larger class size. This fall’s entering dental class expanded from the usual 110 students to 120, including the eight inaugural CARE program students.

Dean Lloyd remarked, “We are the first dental school in the country to make an incremental increase in its class size to focus on improving access to dental care. Students who have already been accepted into our DDS program, and who hail from a federally designated Dental Professional Shortage Area in Ohio are eligible to apply for the CARE program.” He added, “Once they are accepted, these students will be prepared for leadership roles as dental professionals, health care innovators, and members of communities in which they will provide Ohioans with much-needed access to oral health care.”

“People residing in underserved areas deserve to have access to dental care.” —Brandi Lantz '22 (DDS) 

In addition to special seminars and opportunities for networking, mentoring, and community engagement, the CARE program’s students receive a $10,000 scholarship to lessen the debt that has been demonstrated to deter dental graduates from practicing in underserved areas. If CARE program participants maintain a 3.4 GPA, the scholarship is renewable each year of dental school—resulting in nearly a 25 percent reduction in the overall cost of their education. The expectation is that after graduation, these new dentists will choose to practice in their home communities or another underserved area.

Savopoulos’ classmate and fellow CARE program student Brandi Lantz ’22 (DDS), from Coolville in Athens County, was pleased to find a program that would help her reach her long-term goal of becoming a dentist. “I have always wanted to pursue a career in dentistry. Growing up in a rural environment, providing oral health care to underserved communities like mine has always been one of my main objectives for going to dental school,” said Lantz, who plans to return home to practice in southeastern Ohio. “People residing in underserved areas deserve to have access to dental care, as do other populations.”

For Canton, Ohio, native Fuad Farah ’22 (DDS), the CARE program is a natural fit. The undergraduate business major was inspired to apply to dental school after volunteering at a “Dentistry from the Heart” event at his father’s periodontics practice. As Farah witnessed the gratitude of those who had received free care, he knew he wanted to become a dentist, too. “I realized the impact the dental profession can make when I saw how much people who cannot afford dentistry appreciate it,” Farah said.

He plans to return to Stark County following graduation and is glad the program is preparing him to meet the unique needs of underserved patients there. “The CARE program has a goal of sending people back to their hometowns prepared to practice dentistry and to also figure out other public health issues, like how we can increase access to care and make it more affordable for people.”

As for John Savopoulos, his start in dental school has been “phenomenal” thanks to the CARE program, and he feels fortunate to be included in this inaugural class. “The college is giving me a scholarship to go here and I’m getting more information about helping the underserved—applying was an easy decision.”