Julie Watts McKee, D.M.D., Jerrica Norvell, D.M.D., Emily Knight, D.M.D., and John J. Sauk, D.D.S., M.S.
Julie Watts McKee, D.M.D., Jerrica Norvell, D.M.D., Emily Knight, D.M.D., and John J. Sauk, D.D.S., M.S.

As girls growing up in rural Kentucky, it was a an easy decision for Emily Knight and Jerrica Norvell to return to the communities they loved to work as health care professionals. Receiving money to make that happen sweetened the pot.

The 2015 DMD-graduates of the University of Louisville Dental School have chosen to join practices where the help is most needed – rural Kentucky.

Both new dentists are benefiting from a loan forgiveness program in exchange for starting their dental careers in areas of Kentucky where there are too few dentists.

Knight of Glasgow, Kentucky, now practices in nearby Tompkinsville, and says her patients are grateful.

“Not all dentists accept Medicaid, so many of my patients are limited in terms of where they can seek dental care,” Knight said. “Although I was scared to visit a dentist as a child, I now have the opportunity to create a relaxing environment and provide quality dental care with some laughter included along the way.”

As a one-time incentive to attract more dental providers to underserved areas, the Appalachian Dental Loan Forgiveness Program supported up to five dental school graduates of either the University of Louisville or University of Kentucky with $100,000 each for a two-year commitment to practice in the eastern region of the state.

“Kentucky is fortunate that the funder, the Appalachian Regional Commission, values the importance of a competent healthcare workforce with this project,” said Julie Watts McKee, DMD, state dental director for the Kentucky Department for Public Health. “This opportunity places two UofL well-trained general dentists in areas of Appalachian Kentucky that are in need of a dentist in their community.”

“We strive to admit a diverse student body, and consideration of regional demographics is one factor. Some students from underserved areas return home, greatly increasing local resident access to care,” said John J. Sauk, DDS, MS, dean, UofL School of Dentistry.

According to the American Dental Association (ADA), the average dental student graduates with a debt of around $280,000, and returning home to a rural area can be a challenging place to begin a practice.

A native of Liberty, Ky., Norvell says the loan forgiveness program has given her the chance to serve the people of Williamsburg, Kentucky – both in treating immediate dental needs and teaching patients about the importance of routine dental care as a pathway to prevention.

“It was my dream as a little girl to become a dentist, and now I am living this dream in my own community,” Norvell said.

Knight and Norvell recently received their first installment of $50,000, and will receive an additional $50,000 when they complete their two-year commitment of practice in the Appalachian region.

Both plan to stay in the region for many years, and hope to eventually own their own practices.

“I truly love what I do and love the area where I’m working,” Knight said. “Helping those who need it the most is the most rewarding aspect of my profession.”