The Army Dental Corps: A Unique Dental Career Path Offers Big Opportunity, Unmatched Rewards
Capt. Nathan Parrish, DDS, US Army Dental Corps
Each year, nearly 5,000 students graduate from dental school and as with many other career fields, they are faced with a challenging and competitive environment and the stress of paying back student loan debt. According to the American Dental Education Association, the average debt for students graduating from dental school between 1996 and 2007 increased 105% to more than $172,000. At the same time, the economic downturn has affected some students’ ability to obtain the loans needed to finance their dental school or start a new practice. As with the civilian population, ensuring that there are enough well-trained, experienced dentists is a concern of the US Army.
Vital to the Army Medical Department (AMEDD), the Dental Corps is part of an $8 billion per year healthcare system that employs more than 145,000 people and manages the care of about 200,000 patients each day. The Army Dental Corps ensures the oral health of soldiers and their families through general dentistry, board-certified specialists, and participation in important dental research. The Army supports this effort with one of the largest, most comprehensive dental networks in the world and through its comprehensive graduate dental education programs, students and officers alike have access to unique benefits and educational opportunities that allow them to focus on caring for patients rather than the business of running a practice.
Through its F. Edward Hebert Armed Forces Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP), AMEDD offers aunique opportunityfor students seeking a way to pay for theirgraduate medical degrees in a variety offields, particularly dentistry. TheArmy’s dental school scholarship provides students with the full cost of tuition, school-related fees and books, as well as a stipend of almost $2,000 per month during the school year. In addition, scholarship recipients are eligible for a one-time $20,000 sign-onbonus.
Lt. Col. Manuel Marién, Jr leads a group of dental residents each year to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on a humanitarian mission to treat the city's children.
“There’s enough stress getting through dental school that you don’t need additional external factors,” said Capt. Kailehia Binns, DDS, an HPSP recipient and general dentist at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. “As a student, you don’t realize that you’ll have ‘grown-up’ bills. There’s nothing like that first year of dental school to bring that to light.”
Capt. Kailehia Binns, DDS, HPSP recipient,Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, DC.
The scholarship is available in 1, 2, 3, and 4-year increments and provides benefits during school and after graduation for students who are accepted into a graduate medical or dental program at an accredited US school. In addition to a full-tuition scholarship to the medical or dental school of choice, the program pays for books, non-expendable equipment, other academic fees, and a monthly stipend that is adjusted annually for cost-of-living increases. The upfront, $20,000 signing bonus allows students additional financial flexibility. Upon graduation and entry into active duty, AMEDD Officers will continue to receive salary increases as well as new opportunities for a broad range of residencies and graduate education opportunities as well as fellowships and special pay incentives.
For many students like Dr. Binns, HPSP gave them a jump start as a new dentist. Unlike some of her classmates at Ohio State University College of Dentistry, Binns left college with little debt and entered into an Army practice with an established patient base. How her practice differs is that she is able to concentrate on giving her patients the care they need instead of building a private practice, or paying for malpractice insurance, staffing, or rent.
As a general dentist at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Captain Binns works on a variety of cases and procedures, learning and building her skills every day. At Walter Reed she treats hospital support staff, wounded soldiers, family members, and also retirees on an emergency basis.
The range of procedures she has completed in her first year out of dental school is impressive. Captain Binns laughs in recalling a recent conversation with a friend from dental school who asked what type of procedures she’s done. He was shocked that she had already completed more than 80 crowns and bridges compared to his four. Working with an anesthesiologist on staff, she is able to do minor surgical procedures and treat anxious patients as well.
“A lot of my patients are returning from war zones where their teeth were chipped or they were injured by shrapnel,” said Dr. Binns. “If I can find a way to make them smile, it makes my day.”
Most surprising about her Army practice is the freedom she has to choose the type of procedures she provides to patients. “There’s nothing better than being able to take care of those people who give their lives for their country. Everyday I wake up, that’s my motivation.”
Others, like 2nd Lt. Martha Morales, a dental student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, College of Dentistry, also appreciate that they are able to learn from practicing in a group setting. “HPSP is appealing to me because of the opportunity to serve my country while honing my skills in a group practice,” Lt. Morales said. “When I complete the program, I know I’ll always carry the pride of having served.”
Similarly, Dr. Binns has found that the hands-on learning from other dentists, surgeons, and medical professionals at Walter Reed has given her the opportunity to continue her education on various fronts, such as assisting oral surgeons and periodontists during surgical procedures.
In addition to the scholarship, financial benefits, and broad range of experience, Army Dental Corps residents also have the opportunity for professional and personal development that may not be available to their civilian counterparts. For example, for the last 5 years a group of dental residents have embarked on a humanitarian mission to Honduras to provide dental care for children in Tegucigalpa, the capital city. Honduras is an ideal location for a dental mission as poor nutrition resulting from a lack of water fluoridation and frequent exposure to sugar often result in early development of dental caries. These factors are compounded by a lack of access to care, which results in poor overall oral health from an early age.
For 3 weeks each April, Lt. Col. Manuel Marién, Jr, DDS, chief of pediatric dentistry at Fort Hood, Texas, leads a group of Army dental residents and a multinational team, including other dentists and dental hygienists, to two elementary schools, Escuela Lempira de Varones and Escuela Elemental Monseñor Ernesto Fiallos, to treat local children.
“In my opinion, the experience the residents gain from these missions is unparalleled,” said Dr. Marién. “There is no replacement for experience that combines training, dental education, humanitarian service, challenging dental cases, and collaboration with peers across borders.”
The goal of the mission was to provide a full scope of pediatric restorative dentistry to teach the residents skills such as pulpectomies, stainless steel crowns, complex and simple extractions, space management, and behavioral management. Hundreds of children were screened at the school and a total of 1,774 dental procedures were performed. Each child was instructed on proper oral hygiene and provided a toothbrush at the beginning of their treatment and a topical fluoride treatment at the end. For some this would be the only dental treatment they would receive for years.
“As a teacher, I feel the students and residents gain as much from the rich clinical and human experience as the children they treated,” reflected Lt. Col. Marién. “It is an honor to be afforded this opportunity and one that will be continued for years to come.”