LUMBERTON — The county Health director says the community learning center that East Carolina University Dental School of Medicine plans to build in Lumberton is needed in Robeson and surrounding counties. But Jeff Collins, the current president of the Southeastern Dental Society and a member of the county Health Board, has some doubts.
The center, which will provide a community-based site for fourth-year dental students and post-graduate residents to learn and sharpen their skills, will be built on 2.5 acres of land located near the county Department of Social Services on N.C. 711, and adjacent to the Pinecrest Village subdivision. The center is one of 10 that the dental school plans to open in rural areas across the state.
As proposed, the center will be housed in a 7,700-square-foot building that will include 16 operatories and about $1 million worth of equipment. It will be staffed with 10 to 12 people, including ECU faculty and students who will reside in or near Robeson County.
According to Greg Chadwick, interim dean of ECU’s dental school, it is an “expectation” but not a requirement that after graduation the students will return to rural communities and provide dental services that rural areas now lack. ECU officials have said that students dentists are expected to provide free or reduced-cost dental care to local residents willing to sit in the chair.
Bill Smith, the county Health director, said he has been working for about five years to convince ECU officials to consider putting a center in Robeson County. According to Smith, statistics from 2009 to 2010 indicate that there is one dentist for about every 5,000 Robeson County residents. He said that the state average is one dentist to every 2,100 people, with the national average being about one dentist for a population of 1,700.
“You can see that there is clearly a shortage of dentists in Robeson County and North Carolina in general,” Smith said. “There is especially a shortage of dentists in rural areas, unlike in Raleigh and Cary, where there is a dentist’s office on every corner.”
Smith said that if dental students are recruited from rural areas there is a better chance that they will return to these areas to practice.
“If the recruitment is not from rural areas, the students are not going to come to these areas,” he said. “They tend to gravitate to urban areas where there are more opportunities.”
Plans are for the center to become an integral part of the dental outreach and education component that will include the local public schools and Robeson Community College. The center also will team up with the Health Department so that more patients of lower income can be seen.
But Collins, who has a practice in Pembroke, disagrees that there is a shortage of dentists. He said that the number of patients seeking dental care can be handled by existing dentists.
“If everyone in the county went to the dentist every six months, then there would be a problem,” Collins said. “But some only go to a dentist once every several years.”
Collins said that the center and the extra dentists can benefit the county if “they do what they say they will.”
“They say they are going to treat the indigent, and that will fill a void,” he said. “More Medicaid patients and those that are not covered by Medicaid — but are still of low income — will be able to receive services.”
Collins added, however, that he does not think it will be fair for these dentists and the center to compete for patients with dentists in the area that operate their own offices and the associated expenses..
“With the university the state will fund the equipment and cover other expenses,” he said. “They won’t have any overhead operating costs.”
Peter Brooks, a dentist who practices in Lumberton, said that he welcomes additional dentists.
“This will help a lot of people. They will be able to get appointments with a dentist when they need it,” Brooks said. “Most dentists in the area are feeling the effects of a large capacity of patients … When you are seeing 2,000 to 2,500 patients on a regular basis, you are pretty busy.”
The approval process for the dental school is still in its early stages. According to the dental school’s dean, the county’s recent donation of land for the facility is just the first step in the approval process for the school. It is expected that the state approval process, which must be completed before construction on the center can begin, will take several months.
Reach staff writer Bob Shiles at 910-272-6117 or email@example.com.