March 5, 2010

UNE chief: New dentistry school should benefit care in Maine

Seeking public support, she says students and young dentists could help fill gaps in access.

By John Richardson jrichardson@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – A new dentistry school planned by the University of New England would put students to work in health clinics around the state and encourage more young dentists to set up practices here, says UNE President Danielle Ripich.

click image to enlarge

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

Given a statewide shortage of dentists that is only expected to get worse, Ripich and other university officials hope those public benefits will translate into public support for the school, planned for UNE's Portland campus.

"Access to care, particularly oral health care, is a big problem," she said.

Ripich, who spoke Thursday at the Portland Community Chamber's Eggs & Issues breakfast, said the university is working to secure federal funding for its new school.

It also hopes that a bond proposal in the Maine Legislature will ultimately provide $5 million for the project.

The dental school would be the next phase of a broader expansion by UNE, which added a pharmacy school last year to address a shortage of pharmacists in Maine.

"To some extent, we're getting pulled along," Ripich said of the university's rapid growth. "The health care system is going to desperately need our graduates."

Each of Maine's 16 counties has areas where there is just one dentist for every 5,000 residents, according to federal data. The national average is one dentist for every 1,700 residents.

Many Mainers have no access to a dentist, and the problem is likely to get worse because 41 percent of Maine dentists are 55 or older, Ripich said.

Untreated dental problems are an increasing cause of emergency room visits in Maine, even though hospitals can typically do little more than prescribe painkillers, she said.

"That, for many people, is their dental care," Ripich said.

One reason for the lack of access, she said, is that northern New England is the largest area of the country that doesn't have a single dentistry school.

UNE has raised about $5 million of the $15 million to $17 million needed to open the school as soon as 2012, Ripich said.

It would operate in existing buildings on UNE's Portland campus and enroll about 40 students a year.

Students in their third year would work in a teaching clinic, probably in Portland. In their final year, the students would work on extended rotations in community clinics around the state, she said.

Sarah Shed, a spokeswoman for the Maine Dental Access Coalition, said UNE's plan has strong support among health organizations that are working to expand dental care.

"Especially in rural areas, there aren't enough places where people can go" to see a dentist, she said.

UNE is seeking federal funding, and has already secured one federal grant of about $600,000 to pay for computerized simulators -- fake heads and mouths that students would use for practice.

A key piece of funding could come from a proposed state bond that's intended to expand access to dental care in Maine.

The bill will be the focus of a hearing in Augusta in the next week or two.

The bond, if approved by legislators and then voters in November, would provide $5 million for an unnamed dental school to build a teaching clinic and $2 million to upgrade existing community health clinics for dental care.

UNE is not mentioned in the legislation and would have to apply for the $5 million grant. But it is considered the "front-runner" for the money, said Rep. Gary Connor, D-Kennebunk, the bill's sponsor.

"I think there is broad-based support," Connor said of his proposal.

The legislation has co-sponsors from both parties.

But the funding is still uncertain, given the state's shrinking budget and opposition to putting the state further into debt.

"It's attractive in many respects to train more dentists in Maine and get dentists out into the rural communities," said Senate Minority Leader Kevin Raye, R-Perry.

"The question will really be, is it a bond issue that would be this year or next time out."

 

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

jrichardson@pressherald.com

 

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