North Carolina has about four dentists for every 10,000 people, below the national average of 5.8 per 10,000.
Urban areas typically are better off, but not for long.
“About one-third of dentists are 55 years and older,” said Dr. Greg Chadwick, interim dean of the East Carolina University School of Dental Medicine. “They’re going to age out in the next 10 to 20 years.”
That’s one reason why legislators allocated $90 million several years ago to open the state’s second dental school, at East Carolina University.
UNC Chapel Hill’s dental school, established in 1950, graduates about 80 dentists a year.
ECU’s first 52 students – all North Carolina residents – will be starting their second year in August. But their education won’t be confined to the campus in Greenville.
Clinics around the state
As fourth-year students, they’ll be dispatched across the state in 10 clinics, or “service learning centers.” Students will treat local patients, many of whom have not had access to dental care, while living in the same communities.
Like East Carolina’s medical school, the dental school’s emphasis is on training primary-care practitioners who will practice in rural and underserved urban areas.
“The goal is to expand the number of dentists in North Carolina,” said Lara Holland, 23, an ECU dental student and graduate of Huntersville’s Hopewell High School and UNC Chapel Hill.
“We want people that have ties to North Carolina and are more likely to stay here.”
The first of 10 ECU clinics has opened in Ahoskie, north of Greenville. The closest to Charlotte will be near Lexington. Others are planned for Sylva and Spruce Pine in the west, Lillington in the central part of the state, and Elizabeth City in the east. Land for the clinics has been donated by state agencies.
In most dental schools, students treat patients while monitored by faculty. But students might not have the same supervisor twice, and faculty dentists might supervise 10 students at a time, Chadwick said.
New model for dental education
At the ECU clinics, faculty dentists will supervise only a four or five students while also treating their own patients. Teachers and students will get to know one another like colleagues in a practice, and they’ll have some continuity with their patients.
“We really are going to be a model for dental education,” Chadwick said. “It will be very much like a private practice … That’s not the case in the typical dental school.”
Many patients will be covered by Medicaid, the government program for the low-income and disabled. Others will pay based on income. Faculty salaries will come from the dental school, but other employees will be paid from income generated by treating patients. “We want to be sustainable,” Chadwick said.
Holland has volunteered in more than a dozen free clinics operated by N.C. Missions of Mercy and looks forward to her fourth year in the clinics.
“I liked offering this opportunity for people who wouldn’t necessarily receive it otherwise,” she said. “… I’ve seen significant differences in patients’ smiles. It’s amazing to see.”