Just weeks away from his graduation from the dental school at Oregon Health & Sciences University, Ryan LeMert is getting a close-up look at a real rural dental practice, the kind Baker City dentist Sean Benson practices.
With Michael Plunkett looking on, Ryan LeMert examines Mike Long’s teeth. LeMert, a fourth-year dental student, has completed a rural rotation at Sean Benson’s Baker City practice.(Baker City Herald/S.John Collins)
Beyond just observing, LeMert, 27, has seen between eight and 10 patients every day during his rural rotation, where he’s done everything from fillings to root canals.In a way, Baker County patients have opened their mouths, but it’s been LeMert who has said, “awe.”
“Sean has taken good care of me. He’s a fun guy and we’ve got a lot of the same ideas about playing and working,” LeMert said in between seeing patients during his last day at the Baker City practice Thursday. “He should be given a lot of credit for making this happen. He’s been a good guy to work with, and the people are really friendly here.”
It’s good to get out of the classroom for a time and into a thriving, busy dental office, LeMert said.
“Portland just doesn’t suit me,” he said.
LeMert grew up in Roseburg, and his first rural rotation at dental school was at a health clinic there. He said he’s open to operating a private practice in rural Oregon, but in the down economy more and more older dentists are holding on to their practices, and he’s had a hard time purchasing one. He said he might fall back on working for the National Health Service for a while.
“I’m still,” he said, just weeks from completing four hard years of study, “trying to figure out what I’m going to do.”
LeMert’s two-week stay is an effort by OHSU and the Northeast Oregon Area Health Education Center to convince health science students that practicing medicine in a rural setting is an option that can be both fun and rewarding, said Michael Plunkett, the OHSU School of Dentistry’s director of community outreach and a faculty member in the university’s Department of Community Dentistry. Plunkett was in Baker City Thursday both to visit LeMert and Benson and to enjoy a brief vacation in Northeastern Oregon.
LeMert is one of three of the school’s current crop of 75 dentists in training to undertake a rural rotation, Plunkett said. Most students opt instead for an urban health-care center setting.
Eventually, Plunkett said, he’d like up to two-thirds of his students to try their practi-cum in a place Baker City- sized or smaller.
“This is a more realistic representation of how dentistry is practiced,” Plunkett said, gesturing to a small cluster of exam rooms where Baker City’s Mike Long is having a checkup while Benson is filling a cavity in a nearby room. “Our goal is to make the educational process mirror what’s really going on.”
The La Grande-based Northeast Oregon Area Health Education Center plays a role in the rural rotations, not only for dentists but for physicians and nurses as well, Plunkett said. It’s provided LeMert free housing in Baker City for two weeks, and enough gas money to power him to and from Portland and around Baker County while he was here.
According to the La Grande AHEC office, many communities in Eastern Oregon, including Halfway, Richland, North Powder, Union and John Day, are short of enough health professionals to care for their residents.
The organization is working to help meet that need, with the idea that the more young health care providers are exposed to rural settings, the more likely they are to establish their practices in one.
And for the record, Plunkett wants to dispel the myth that rural dentists have to take a pay cut compared with their brothers and sisters in urban settings.
“It’s a misnomer that it’s not financially rewarding to practice in rural areas,” he said.
NEOAHEC, together with Eastern Oregon University, also tries to help ease the rural health-care provider shortage by getting children interested in science, health and literacy through curriculum called Great Discoveries and a Girls in Science project. It also puts on a career choice camp called MedQuest.
The nonprofit group coordinates 80 educational rotations every year for OHSU and Pacific University students.
Once he’d seen his last patient Thursday, LeMert was already waxing a little nostalgic for his stay.
“This has been an intermediate step” between dental school and his new life outside school, he said. “I’ve treated it like an apprenticeship, and it’s been a rewarding one.”
rural medicine, visit www.eou.edu/neoahec.