North Carolina has one of the lowest dentists-to-population ratios in the country, and this problem is more pronounced in rural areas, where there are fewer dental providers.
The focus of the ECU School of Dental Medicine is to educate the next generation of primary care dentists for the rural and underserved areas of North Carolina. Access to dental care is particularly limited among low income populations and those who depend on Medicaid and Health Choice programs.
At the heart of the ECU School of Dental Medicine’s innovative educational model is the experience that fourth-year students gain in the school’s community service learning centers (CSLCs). ECU is building eight to ten CSLCs in rural and underserved areas across the state. These centers are an integral part of the school and allow faculty members, residents, and students to provide care in an educational environment. CSLC locations at this time include Ahoskie (Hertford County), Elizabeth City (Pasquotank County), Lillington (Harnett County), Sylva (Jackson County), Davidson County, and Robeson County. One to three additional centers are yet to be announced.
In many cases, the communities in which the CSLCs are located suffer not only from lack of oral health care but also from a lack of health care in general. Therefore, students and residents under the supervision of faculty dentists build their skills in treating patients with complex medical and oral health needs.
With a strong foundation in clinical sciences, students and residents learn to make appropriate referrals for the evaluation of conditions such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other problems that may go undiagnosed in a rural community with inadequate access to health care.
Students at the CSLCs work alongside ECU faculty dentists, residents, dental assistants, dental hygienists, and business office staff. The residents’ and students’ training experiences in the CSLCs prepare them to function as practice leaders. By working with a real health care delivery system, they build strong practice management skills. Students spend approximately 9 weeks at 3 different CSLCs during their fourth year, living and working in the community they serve.