“Today is the end of a long, long journey,” said Jerry Parks, health director for Albemarle Regional Health Services. “It is a day of thank-you’s.”
Officials cut the ribbon on the $3 million, 7,700-square-foot facility at 1161 North Road Street with more than 150 people attending the opening of ECU's second community service learning center.
Parks also challenged the dental students. “I want to put you on notice to your importance to this community,” he said. “If eyes are the window to the soul, then oral health is a window to the health of the community.”
First-year ECU dental student Makani Dollinger of Hatteras has assisted Dr. Mead Slagle of Frisco, the only dentist on Hatteras Island who also treats patients from Ocracoke Island. With the usual ferry route across Hatteras Inlet closed due to dredging, a once 30-minute trip now takes an hour and 15 minutes one way.
“It’s very obvious there is a need for rural health care,” said Dollinger, who has volunteered at the annual Missions of Mercy two-day health clinic on the Outer Banks, which draws hundreds of patients without regular health care. “This clinic is exactly what we need out here.”
Wick Baker, president of Albemarle Health, also spoke of the need for dental care in the region. He said the hospital, which is located across the street and provided the site for the center, treats an average of three patients a day who come into the emergency room in need of dental care.
Dr. Phyllis Horns, ECU’s vice chancellor for health sciences, said the opening of ECU’s Community Service Learning Center personifies ECU’s mission ‘to serve.’ “In planning for the School of Dental Medicine and, in particular, the building of the service learning centers and what it will mean to the residents in these communities, this embodies the mission of ECU.”
“We are very excited about joining you in Elizabeth City," Dr. Greg Chadwick, dean of the ECU School of Dental Medicine, said. "We look forward to being your neighbor. We think this will be a wonderful location for students and residents to live and gain experience practicing dentistry.”
At the center, ECU dental faculty members, dental residents and students will provide care for area citizens. Meanwhile, students and dental residents will learn what practicing in a community setting is like.
The staff began seeing patients in April at the clinic that has a main objective to treat patients who do not have a regular dentist. Medicaid and sliding fee scale patients are welcome.
The center contains 16 dental chairs and will employ local staff members, including full-time and part-time dental faculty, a business manager, dental assistants, dental hygienists and general dentistry residents. Beginning in the summer of 2014, dental students will gain experience at the center during nine-week rotations.
Patients may receive a variety of services, including general, preventive and emergency dental care as well as crowns, root canals, bridges and other dental care.
Features of the new facility include an exam room with a dental chair that can be moved and replaced with a wheelchair stand that tilts its occupant back for a traditional dental care posture. In another room, a special microscope helps dentists performing endodontics – root canals – better see the work they're doing inside patients' mouths.
Radiology equipment can take 3D images of the face and transmit them to any computer station in the clinical area.
ECU officials hope the center will ultimately help improve dental health in the area while adding an innovative educational aspect to dental school.
Elizabeth City, a town of nearly 19,000 on the Pasquotank River in northeastern North Carolina, was one of the first sites named for what will eventually be 8 to 10 such centers across the state. The other sites identified so far are Lillington in central North Carolina, Davidson County in the Triad, and Sylva and Spruce Pine in the western part of the state. The first center opened last year in Ahoskie.
The town is the center of the Elizabeth City Micropolitan Statistical Area, which includes Perquimans and Camden counties. Camden County has no dentists; the average age of the dentists in Perquimans and Pasquotank counties exceeds 55, according to the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Overall, North Carolina ranks 47th out of the 50 states in the number of dentists per capita, according to the Sheps Center. The state averages three dentists for every 10,000 people residing in rural areas, while it averages nearly five dentists for every 10,000 people residing in urban areas. Three counties, all in the northeast, have no dentists: Tyrrell, Hyde and Camden. Nationally, the ratio is six dentists for every 10,000 people.
ECU admitted its first class of 52 dental students in 2011. The second class of 52 started last August, and the third class will begin this August. All students are North Carolina residents. Goals of the school are to improve access to dental care, to educate students from underserved and underrepresented populations, and to graduate dentists who have a desire to practice in underserved areas.
The center’s phone number is 252-331-7225.