SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah is moving ahead with the state's first public dental school, with or without the support of local dentists.
Officials recently announced the new school's location, adjacent to the main campus in Research Park, and that it will be named for Ray and Tye Noorda, whose foundation provided the $30 million donation that will largely cover building costs.
Local dentists aren't convinced of the need but understand the benefits of the new school. The dental school, more than 10 years in the making, is expected to provide a less expensive option for education and also help staff local community clinics during the students' final years.
Since the donation was first announced in 2010, the idea of a dental school at the U. has received some criticism, increasingly after the privately run Roseman University of Health Sciences in South Jordan opened its own dental school a year ago.
"We really don't need two dental schools," said Monte Thompson, Utah Dental Association executive director, who adding that many local dentists already struggle to find business in a weakened economy.
"They are about 80 percent as busy as they were about five years ago," Thompson said.
The Nevada-based Roseman plans to turn out 64 dentists in 2015 and another 80 in 2016, when the U. plans to graduate its first class of 20 students.
Dr. Scott Theurer, president of the Utah Dental Association and a dentist in Logan, said while 100 new dentists each year is a lot, the majority of those students won't stay in Utah.
"Right now, we believe there is a sufficient number of dentists to take care of the needs of Utah citizens," Theurer said.
The only dearth of dentists is in rural areas of Utah, but mobile services can often care for those populations, he said.
A 2006 survey of Utah dentists revealed that 95 percent of those familiar with the trade believed the local market was saturated.
However, a Utah Medical Education Council study done the same year found that Utah has 56.8 dentists for every 100,000 people, fewer than the 61.4 in 2002 and below the national average at the time, of 59.8. At the time, the agency believed Utah's rate was on the decline.
Dental practitioners have yet to return this year's surveys, but Sri Koduri, the council's interim executive director, estimates the 2011 ratio to be 60.9, which exhibits a slight increase over the years, as many dentists may have gone back to work or are working longer.
That number, Koduri said, may be revised once the council's 2012 survey data becomes available.
"There is certainly not what we would call a shortage of dentists in Utah," said Dr. Lynn Powell, the U.'s school of dentistry founding dean.
But Powell said he believes students coming out of the U.'s program will have a more manageable level of debt, as opposed to the hundreds of thousands of dollars currently accrued by the up to 130 local students who head to out-of-state dental schools every year.
"The concern is that they would come here to start their practices and fail economically," said Theurer, who studied in the 1980s at Washington University in St. Louis.
He worries that the market in Utah isn't good enough to help dental graduates pay off large amounts of student debt, as well as cover the costs of opening a practice, specifically in rural Utah.
The U.'s lower cost program may help to relieve that pressure, as tuition is expected to be the same as it is for medical students, which in 2012 was listed at $28,735 annually. Roseman expects closer to $80,000 each year from its students.
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