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Amid shortage of rural Iowa dentists, Corning dental practice thrives thanks to grant program

Dr. Maria Fuller chose Corning because the community had a 'vibrant' culture and needed more dental care
DRs. Fuller and Johnson in Lenox, Iowa dental office
Posted at 11:24 AM, Apr 20, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-20 12:26:51-04

Dr. Maria Fuller and her family drove around Iowa in an RV, experiencing different communities in need of a dental provider. That was 17 years ago. Fuller and her family are now happily part of the community in Corning, Iowa. She even welcomed an associate, Dr. Zachary Johnson. Both dentists, thanks to a grant from the Delta Dental Foundation and the State of Iowa, have been able to serve a part of the state that doesn't have enough dentists.

  • The Delta Dental Foundation grant program — FIND — helps providers who set up practice in underserved communities pay down their, often substantial, student loans.
  • Dr. Fuller and her husband had no ties to Corning, but were attracted to the community because of it's "vibrant" culture.
  • Associate Dean at Creighton School of Dentistry Dr. Joseph Franco says his students find that when they work in small communities, they also take on a leadership role in that community.


There aren't enough dentists in rural Iowa. In fact, 87 out of Iowa's 99 counties have a high need for dental care. I'm your Southwest Iowa neighborhood reporter, Katrina Markel in Adams County where I'm learning about what it took for this community to have a thriving dental practice.

"Gotta grow 'em in your backyard," Dr. Zachary Johnson said.

Dr. Zachary Johnson graduated from the University of Iowa dental school last year and returned to his home community to practice.

Johnson works with Dr. Maria Fuller, who used to be his dentist, serving a wide area that has few dental practices. Both dentists got a grant from a partnership between the state and The Delta Dental Foundation.

"What we're trying to do is establish, while their getting their loans paid off, establish a patient base that is diverse and is able to treat many in the community," said Suzanne Heckenlaible, the executive director of Delta Dental Foundation.

The competitive FIND grant requires dentists to open an office in a high-need area and take patients who can't always get care, including veterans and those on Medicaid.

The folks around Corning are thrilled to have care close by.

"It was so huge because she filled such a void," said patient, Shirley Olive.

Dr. Fuller says she was "city girl" from eastern Iowa; an accountant before starting dental school. With student loans, a spouse and two small children, she might have accepted a job in the Quad Cities, but instead, drove around the state in an RV, considering small towns. The vibrancy of Corning attracted them.

Fuller's husband noticed people wave from their cars.

"Yeah, the wave test," said Fuller, laughing. "It kind of felt like 'this is where we should be.' So, you kind of have to give it a chance, really."

Creighton Associate Dean Dr. Joseph Franco says his dentists are welcomed as community leaders in rural settings: "You're going to be a voice in the community."

Like FIND grant recipients, the clinic at Creighton dental school accepts Medicaid when many providers don't.

"We see a lot of rural patients from Iowa," Franco said.

"We had people calling from like four hours away to come see us because there's no dentist closer to them that would take them," Johnson said.

Johnson, a year out of dental school, all smiles giving back to the region where he grew up.