How do we as a country start improving access to oral health care? How can we better serve the hard-to-reach populations who need it most? These are difficult questions, but there are few better places to start talking about answers than with Lisenia Collazo, DMD.
Dr. Collazo was born in Pennsylvania but spent her childhood and college years in Puerto Rico. She returned to the States to attend Penn Dental Medicine, where she pursued her DMD alongside a master’s in public health. During her time at Penn Dental, she was awarded a Delta Dental Community Scholarship, which provides students who demonstrate a strong commitment to improving access to care with sizeable scholarship assistance.
We reached out to Dr. Collazo to discuss how the scholarship helped to shape her current work and her perspective on the future of improving access to care.
How and when did you decide to become a dentist?
Growing up, I spent a lot of time with two of my older cousins who happened to be dental assistants. I visited them a few times at the clinic where they used to work, and I got to see how a dental practice was run behind the scenes. By the time I was getting ready to graduate high school in Puerto Rico, I was lucky enough to visit the University of Puerto Rico’s Medical Sciences Campus and get an introduction to the different programs. Visiting the dental school, seeing how hands-on the training was, the blend of medicine and art, along with the experience I already had, it all really solidified my interest in dentistry as a career.
How did your interest in improving access to care develop?
Once I decided to pursue dentistry as my career, that’s when I started to notice how few people seek out dental care. They just let their oral health deteriorate. That’s due to a lot of factors, but I believe the main issue is the disconnect between dentistry and the rest of the medical field. Insurance plans are segregated from medical insurance, and there’s low oral health literacy in the general population and a lack of diversity among providers. Once I learned about those issues, I wanted to help patients become more comfortable with coming to the dentist and to educate myself about how to best improve access to care from an administrative standpoint.
How did being named a Delta Dental Community Scholar help you on your journey?
While I was in dental school, I was also in the community service honors program. I learned about the Delta Dental Community Scholarship during that time. The scholarship just helped me to solidify my commitment to working in underserved communities. That kind of scholarship helps to bring providers to patient populations that need them the most.
Coming from a low socioeconomic and minority background myself, I’m appreciative of the assistance those programs give because it helps students who are already committed to giving back to their communities, and it eases the burden that comes with student loan debt. As education becomes more and more expensive, it’s difficult to get providers to work in those underserved areas. Scholarship programs like the Delta Dental Community Scholarship truly help to get care to the people who need it the most.
You completed your DMD along with a master’s degree in public health. Why did you decide to pursue both degrees and could you describe how having both has shaped your career and outlook?
One of the reasons I chose to attend Penn Dental was because I was already aware of their dual degree program. I was very happy to be selected as one of the students they gave the opportunity to receive additional education alongside their DMD. Completing the master’s in public health during my time at Penn Dental basically helped me learn more about the policies that affect our patients’ health and what strategies we can use to make an impact at a higher level beyond what we can do chairside.
Can you describe your work since graduation?
During my senior year of dental school, I applied to the National Health Service Corps’ Students to Service Loan Repayment Program. I was awarded a significant amount of money to use towards my student loans. In exchange, I’ll work three years in an underserved area.
During my residency, I began to look for available sites. I got an offer in my current location, which is Upper Great Lakes Family Health Center in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It’s an underserved area, so a lot of our patients are either on Medicaid or do not have insurance.
The Upper Peninsula is extremely rural, and a lot of our patients drive hundreds of miles just to get care. The family health center I work with has about eight sites; two have dental clinics, and they’re in the process of opening more to make travel easier for our patients. It’s the same issue when they seek specialist care. If there’s a case where we have to refer to an oral surgeon or an endodontist, that’s very difficult for these patients. There just aren’t many providers here.
The population I work with is also located in a food desert. There’s mostly convenience stores that don’t have the most nutritious options. We see a high incidence of caries, and we see a lot of patients without any teeth at a very young age. Our mission is to educate patients — especially those with children — early on so we can prevent them from getting to that state later on in their life.
How far along are you in your three years of service? What are your plans after?
In July, it will be two years. I plan to stay here longer. I’m not exactly sure how long yet. I want to continue working in public health and to get my student loans forgiven through the government’s public service loan forgiveness program. I would have eight more years to go with that. I’ve considered staying here the remainder of those eight years, but as an Afro-Latina woman, I would also eventually like to go to a community with more Hispanic patients.
What do you love most about being a dentist?
Empowering patients through education is one of the most rewarding things that comes with the career. The most difficult thing when it comes to patients receiving health care is that there’s low health literacy.
I also love helping patients feel at ease in the dental chair and learn to trust health care providers by building those relationships. Diversity and representation truly matter. As a dentist who is a woman and also Afro-Latina, I’m happy to see more women and people of color entering the medical field because that does make a difference when it comes to patients coming in to receive care.
The Delta Dental Community Care Foundation has endowed in perpetuity the awarding of two Community Scholarships each year to Penn Dental students who desire to work in an underserved area after graduation. The Foundation works with nonprofit partners across our 15-state and Washington, D.C. enterprise to increase access to oral health care, fund oral health education and support organizations that serve vital needs in our communities. The Foundation is the philanthropic arm of Delta Dental of California and its affiliated companies, including Delta Dental Insurance Company, Delta Dental of Pennsylvania and Delta Dental of New York, Inc.