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Published 4:40 am Thursday, February 19, 2009

By Staff
Mike Hughes of Raleigh is a member
of the ECU Board of Visitors.
Don’t put off ECU’s dental school
If you think North Carolina has done a good job of providing dental health care to its citizens, take a trip east of Interstate 95. Way down east. The gap between North Carolina’s affluent regions and rural areas is as plain as the smile on your face. Or, in too many unfortunate cases, the lack thereof.
The economic struggles of Eastern North Carolina are no secret, and the recession has made a bad situation worse. Poor dental health goes hand-in-hand with low income, high unemployment and few prospects. Our classical images of poverty almost invariably include misaligned or missing teeth.
But poor dental health isn’t just a cosmetic problem. It is a key factor in poor overall health. Having a mouth of broken, painful teeth leads to bad eating habits (resulting in obesity, diabetes, heart disease and a host of other disorders). Perhaps even more importantly, it leads to low self-esteem, which cripples its victims’ dreams and aspirations.
Improving dental health is an important, and underappreciated, part of breaking the cycle of poverty in rural North Carolina, and it is time to help our citizens who’ve been left behind by the systems in place. As a news story earlier this month noted, more than half of North Carolina’s counties have fewer than three dentists for very 10,000 people. Four counties have no dentists.
In 2006, plans were approved to build a new dental school at East Carolina University. Today, the school is preparing for its first class in the fall of 2011. Pending appropriate state funding, the school will graduate 50 dentists in the middle of the next decade.
In the meantime, the school will set up clinical service learning centers around the state — in the rural east and the rural west — to train aspiring dentists and provide care to the state’s neediest.
Admission policies will emphasize recruiting and accepting students from these same underserved areas, which increases the likelihood of graduates’ returning to those areas to practice.
If that strategy sounds familiar, it should. It’s the same critical mission that the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina has been fulfilling for more than 30 years. It’s the same mission East Carolina University has been fulfilling in the region for a century.
My late father, a professor of pediatrics at the medical school, believed deeply in that mission, because he saw firsthand how it changed lives. In the early 1980s, every couple of weeks, Dad rode with his colleagues, sometimes 90 minutes each way from Greenville, to staff clinics in places like Swan Quarter and Columbia, among other rural areas. They saw countless examples of the unfathomable disparity in the quality and availability of medical care between the state’s population centers and its rural regions. In many cases, Dad was the first doctor those children had ever seen.
That critical work continues today and has expanded significantly. The new dental school is the next step.
In November, Dr. James Hupp left his job as dean of the University of Mississippi School of Dentistry to become founding dean at the East Carolina dental school. Hupp has significant experience in developing comprehensive programs and curricula to meet the needs of rural communities, and he is excited about the prospect of building a dental school from the ground up.
Unfortunately, in the midst of the recession, the funding needed to recruit faculty and pursue accreditation is at risk, posing a dramatic quandary: The new dental school cannot recruit students until it is accredited. It cannot get accredited if it can’t get sufficient funding this year and next to hire faculty and develop its innovative curriculum.
Hupp and other university officials are working to ensure that this message gets across to the General Assembly, the UNC Board of Governors and anyone else who will listen.
Eastern North Carolina stands on the brink of something big — a basic building block to a better, healthier tomorrow for thousands of people in unserved and underserved areas. Addressing the region’s dental health needs has been a long time coming, and further delay for lack of funding would only perpetuate the disservice that the region has suffered for decades.