Dental School Plan in Place, Awaiting Funding Decision
By Doug Boyd
The plan is in place and the leaders are optimistic. The only big question remaining for East Carolina University’s proposed dental school is how it will be funded.
The UNC System is asking for $43.5 million in each of the next two years to build the dental school at ECU and $96 million to expand the dental school at UNC - Chapel Hill.
The dental school received an important boost in February when Gov. Mike Easley included it in his budget. The governor proposed funding the school and other projects in a $1.4 billion bond referendum.
“The governor including the ECU School of Dentistry in his budget is important because it sends the message that the governor values the oral health of the people and feels that the ECU School of Dentistry is a worthy project,” said Dr. Gregory Chadwick, ECU vice chancellor for oral health and interim dean of the dental school. “Placing it in a bond referendum will delay the funding until after the vote, and we are not sure when that would be, more so than if the funds are appropriated in the budget by the General Assembly. If the funds are appropriated in this year’s budget, then the funds would be available when the budget is approved.”
Lawmakers will consider the governor’s budget as they hash out their own budget proposal and could decide the bond referendum is the best way to provide funds or could fund the ECU dental school directly. Either way, he said, the school appears to be moving closer to reality. “I’m optimistic. We have a real good plan,” Chadwick said. “The Board of Governors is behind it, and we’ve done our homework.”
A document developed by ECU and UNC-Chapel Hill, “The Plan for Dentistry in North Carolina,” calls for expansion of the dental school at Chapel Hill along with increased educational space and research facilities as well as consideration of the new school at ECU. The UNC Board of Governors unanimously endorsed the plan last April. If lawmakers approve the funds this year, construction on the new school near the Health Sciences Building could begin next year, and the first class would enroll in 2010.
As part of the Plan for Dentistry, ECU will enroll 50 students with each class, while Carolina will expand its class size to 100. ECU would have nearly 70 dental faculty members plus staff and other support workers, Chadwick said. Also at the school would be 30 pediatric and general dentistry residents.
Students will practice not just at ECU but also in 10 “service learning centers,” or dental clinics across the state.
“They’ll be more than rural clinics,” Chadwick said. “They’ll be part of the senior year of our dental school. We’ll be looking where there are no dentists, where there are patients, where there are patients covered by Medicaid.”
If the money is included in a bond referendum, funding would depend when the referendum is held and whether voters approve it.
Sixty to 70 percent of the population has good dental care, Chadwick said, despite the fact that North Carolina ranks 47th out of the 50 states in the number of dentists per capita. Many people without good dental care live in rural areas, where there are three dentists for every 10,000 people in North Carolina, Chadwick said. That compares to urban areas of the state, where the ratio is nearly five to 10,000. Nationally, the ratio is six dentists for every 10,000 people.
Four counties, all in the northeast, have no dentists: Gates, Tyrrell, Hyde and Camden.
“There is unquestionably a shortage of dentists and, more importantly, a mal-distribution of dentists,” Chadwick said.
In addition, only 13 percent of dentists are minorities, compared to 34 percent of North Carolinians. Educating minority dentists, Chadwick said, is “one of the things we’ll focus on.”
Improving access to dental care is especially important in areas such as eastern North Carolina where access to all medical care is spotty, and research shows oral health has a direct impact on overall health.
Dr. Sara Grossi, a dentist and research professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the Brody School of Medicine, is a leading scientist in the area of oral health’s link to overall health. She wrote a landmark paper in 1999 showing treating gum infection in Pima Indians in Arizona who have type-2 diabetes can help control blood-glucose levels.
“It’s so intuitive, you wonder why did it take so long for this to be known,” Grossi said. “Dental health goes absolutely beyond the function, capability and cosmetic aspects. Oral health is essential to general health.”
While the ECU dental school will focus on educating primary care dentists, research also will be important.