Dr. Christina T. Rosenthal is a dentist, social entrepreneur, and recently named Atlantic Fellow for Health Equity, one of nearly 300 people working worldwide to build fairer, healthier, and more inclusive societies. Just one year out of dental school, she opened her first private practice, and then later launched Determined to be a Doctor Someday (DDS), an initiative to develop the next generation of healthcare professionals who will be representative of the communities they serve.
Based in Memphis, Tennessee, and housed on the campus of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center Memphis, TN, DDS provides mentorship connections with local healthcare providers, access to a community of like-minded peers, and site visits to healthcare facilities and institutions.
Beyond exposure to various healthcare professions and an opportunity to earn scholarships, DDS offers standardized test preparation to six-month program participants, and many have credited this feature for high or improved test scores. To date, her very first scholarship recipient, Taylor Wilson, is pursuing dual MD/ Ph.D. degrees from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, the host institution for the D.D.S. initiative. Another participant, Quodarrius Toney, who was uncertain of his career path after high school, is now a dental student at Howard University.
Below Dr. Rosenthal shares her journey from idea to vision to reality below, in her own words:
“Find Opportunity in Chaos”
This phrase by T.D. Jakes cultivated an “aha” moment for me. In 2010, I ambitiously opened a second dental practice in rural Arkansas against the advice of many. I saw a community who mirrored my upbringing, and it was a chance to deliver quality care to an underserved population. The practice failed, and my mental health declined with it. To arise from my depression, I sought opportunity and found it in the American Dental Association’s Institute for Diversity in Leadership. As a requisite for completion of the Institute, I had to create a project, and the initiative, Determined to be a Doctor Someday, D.D.S., was born.
It was only when I took my eyes off of my own despair and placed them on being a solution for others did I feel liberated.
Sometimes You Can’t Be What You Can’t See
It has been well-researched that minority professionals typically treat minority populations, and patients usually feel more comfortable around practitioners who can identify with them culturally. Cultivating new cohorts of healthcare providers who resemble the constituency of their neighborhoods will be critical to healthcare for us all.
Students who participate in the initiative represent minority, under-resourced, and rural demographics. Although D.D.S. has a primary focus of exposure to various healthcare professions, the underlying themes of every session are hope, inspiration, and encouragement to return to their communities after professional degrees have been attained.
One component of our program that makes it unique is the vulnerability and transparency encouraged by healthcare professionals who speak to participants and mentor them. The struggle is often an omitted component of traditional academic institutions, where the focus is usually technique and skills driven. How does one continue in the face of adversity? Were there others who faced similar challenges and overcame? Our volunteer doctors put a face to the determination, and many of our participants see possibility through their openness.
Your Vision is Too Small if You Can Do it All Yourself
Accomplishing this cannot be done alone as an individual, and that is where being a part of the Atlantic Fellow program proves instrumental. That’s why I became an Atlantic Fellow for Health Equity at George Washington University’s Health Workforce Institute. I’m part of a larger, global group and in this way, I can connect with others around the world, learn how they are making differences, share my experiences and apply some best practices to my work. I am grateful that this network provides a space to collaborate and share resources to increase my capacity to do this work.
With the help of Pamela Houston at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, we are adding a toddler’s component to reach a younger audience. Research has shown that positive learning experiences that children have before, during, and after kindergarten have a strong impact on academic achievement. Although STEAM-related (science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math) curricula have become a focal point for every level of academia, it is rare to find programming embedded at the pre-school level, specifically with a healthcare professions focus. This deficiency creates the need for a preschool initiative that could supplement core instruction.
In June of 2018, we launched DDS Explorers an interactive, fun, and engaging learning experience for toddlers who are 2 to 5 years old with a primary objective to expose them to the various healthcare professions. All activities are STEAM-based, age-appropriate, and created to tap into the individualized learning style of each participant.