Meet Monique Trice. Second year student at University of Louisville Dental School, her plans are to return home to Enterprise, Ala., with a deeper understanding of the hurdles of access that her community confronts. Enterprise, a community of 27,000 and 80 miles south of Montgomery, is predominantly white and blue collar. Many residents rely on Medicaid which often does not cover the full range of oral health services.

“Nearly every county in Alabama suffers from unmet oral health needs, but an emerging dental student is planning to make a difference by bridging gaps and taking on the “dental desert” in her community.”

The  Alabama’s Office of Primary Care and Rural Health (OPCRH) reports 65 of the state’s 67 counties were designated as dental health shortage areas for low-income populations. According to this 2011 data, more than 260 additional dentists are needed to bridge gaps. For some residents, time, resources and distance figure into the equation.  In some rural communities an hour’s drive is required for dental services.

In a 2007 report, the U.S. surgeon general identified “special care” communities as individuals that suffer high rates of dental disease, disproportionately among those with low incomes or from rural, urban and frontier communities. Lack of access to dental care does not only leads to teeth loss and other dental diseases, it is a major cause of preventable diseases with impact beyond oral health, as the mouth is considered the gateway to the entire body.

Trice, 24, says she already has envisioned her dental studio in Enterprise. Her path between Enterprise and Louisville has been paved with training, exposure and opportunity – all fortified by a participation in the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP) in 2008.

Paired with mentors, Trice and her 79 classmates at the SMDEP University of Louisville site were exposed to courses that integrated health sciences and problem solving to address unmet needs of underserved communities.

“The program taught me how to implement both clinical and educational experiences in the medical and dental field,” shares Trice.

She and many of her cohorts recognize lack of oral health care and access as a “silent epidemic.” In July 2011, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council released a report recommending the expansion of basic oral health care to underserved populations and increased recruitment to bring more low-income, rural and underrepresented persons into the education and practice of dental care.

Trice said her own life experiences have made her intimately familiar with the challenges. While her mother worked and attended nursing school (now an RN), Trice juggled two jobs, helped care for three younger siblings while maintaining a 3.5 GPA. A 2008 graduate of Enterprise-Ozark Community College and Troy University, Trice will complete her studies at the University of Louisville Dental School in May 2015.

“From the classroom to the clinic, I’d like to see more educators in dentistry,” says Trice. “Not enough patients are educated on their oral health and dismiss the purpose of regular checkups and cleanings. Some patients will skip a filling or have the tooth pulled rather than seek to save it. This is due to a lack of education.”