LUMBERTON — East Carolina University officials were in Lumberton on Monday to announce that ground will be broken soon on its School of Dental Medicine’s Community Service Learning Center and that it will be operating in the fall of 2014.
The center, where students will be trained, will also provide dental care to residents in Robeson and surrounding rural counties at a bargain.
Greg Chadwick, dean of the ECU School of Dental Medicine, said that a groundbreaking for the 7,700-square-foot center to be located in front of the Pinecrest Country Club, near the county Department of Social Services on N.C. 711 and adjacent to the Pinecrest Village subdivision, can be expected “soon.” The center will be built on 2.5 acres of land that was donated to the university by the Robeson County commissioners last year.
“We’re ready to go,” Chadwick said. “We’ve just been waiting to get all of the permits we need and make sure everything is in place.”
The center, the seventh to be announced by the university, is one of 10 the ECU dental school will eventually open in rural areas across the state. It will provide a community-based site for fourth-year dental students and post-graduate residents to learn and sharpen their skills, as well as provide free and reduced-cost dental care to qualifying residents.
The center is part of a strategy to address the shortage of dentists in rural areas. Centers are already operating in Ahoskie and Elizabeth City. Four other clinics — in Lillington, Sylva, Spruce Pine and Davidson County — are under construction and expected to open next year.
Chadwick said that the center will have a significant impact not only on the dental care of residents in Robeson and surrounding counties, but will be a boost to the local economy. He said it will cost about $3.6 million to construct the school, with 10 employees, including hygienists, dental assistants and office staff, being hired from the community.
ECU Chancellor Steve Ballard said that the Robeson County center, as well as the other centers being built in rural areas across the state, is addressing needs that have not previously been met.
“We have more than 50 counties out of the state’s 100 counties that have fewer dentists than federal standards,” he said during remarks to the audience of about 60 gathered for Monday’s announcement at the county’s Department of Social
Bill Smith, Robeson C0unty’s health director, said that there is a shortage of dentists in Robeson County, as well as surrounding rural counties.
“This has been a long time coming, a very long time,” Smith said.
Smith said that the state’s Association of Local Health Directors in the early 1990s recognized the shortage of dentists, especially in rural areas, and made it a legislative priority.
“It went nowhere. We weren’t content with just having one or two or three more slots added to those (at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) because it wouldn’t meet our needs,” he said.
Smith added that he didn’t expect a dental school to be built in Robeson County.
“This goes far beyond what I ever imagined,” he said.
Proponents hope that the ECU clinic will help fill a gap in dental services following the closing of the county Health Department’s dental clinic two months ago. The clinic was closed because it was losing too much money.
Noah Woods, chairman of the Robeson County Board of Commissioners, praised ECU for choosing Robeson County as a site for one of its centers.
“We’re honored by ECU’s decision to put the project here,” Woods said. “… We know the need (for dentists) in rural areas.”
Kasey Oxendine, a second-year dental school student at ECU, said she is looking forward to having the opportunity to sharpen her skills in Robeson County and other rural counties during her fourth-year as a student at ECU. Oxendine, who was raised in Fairmont and Orrum, said she plans to return to Robeson County after her graduation to pursue her dental career.
“I chose to go to ECU for dental school because of its emphasis on rural health care,” Oxendine said. ”I knew when I chose the school that I plan to come back to Robeson County and practice … . There is a need for dentists here. When I was young and living in the county I experienced the shortage of dentists and the long waiting time it took to get to see a dentist.”