University of Utah dental school on its way, despite saturated Utah market

Published: Friday, Nov. 9 2012 6:00 p.m. MST

The new U. program, which will enroll its first class next fall, already has received more than 175 applications for its 20 positions, which Powell said illustrates "a definite demand for academic training here."

Utah students interested in dentistry already have had a limited opportunity to study at the U. through a contractual education arrangement with Creighton University in Nebraska, where students spend three years after first studying alongside medical students in Salt Lake City their first year.

That arrangement, which also provided a reimbursement to local students who returned to work in Utah to pay off their loans quicker, will be terminated with the culmination of the U.'s new program, as students will remain in Utah the entire four years.

Powell said there will also no longer be an incentive offered to keep students in Utah after graduation.

"There are always dentists leaving or retiring, and there's growth in the population," he said. "Just like medical students trained here, they're free to go where they need to."

While the state has a good reputation for quality dental students, it is not known as a profitable place for dentists.

"The dentists who come here tend to sacrifice quite a bit financially just to live in Utah," Thompson said. "Many can cross the state border and have significantly better incomes. They pay a price to live here and to practice here, economically."

More than 95 percent of Utah’s dentist workforce is in private practice, according to the Utah Medical Education Council survey. Results indicate that the average income for dentists in 2006 in Utah was $158,271, with each spending an average of 34.7 hours a week providing patient care.

"They're not poor," Thompson said. "Some don't do so hot and have to leave the state, but many do really well. It's just not as easy as it looks."

Generally, good dentists can find a practice if they are willing to earn less than they could elsewhere, he said.

"Ideally, if everyone properly cared for their teeth, there would be a need for more dentists," Thompson said, "but it's an economic issue, and people don't always make dental care a priority over less important purchases."

The trend is also that dentists practice longer, putting off retirement past age 65, he said.

Nevada, California and Arizona have dental schools, but other surrounding states such as Wyoming, New Mexico, Idaho and Montana do not, which played into the decision to bring a school to Utah.

The primary donation gift "is about helping improve the human condition," according to the Noorda family. "This new dental school will train top Utah students and offer affordable tuition; it will provide underserved citizens from across the region with better access to dental care; and it will spark innovative dental research that will benefit patients around the world."

Ray Noorda founded the software company Novell in the 1980s and died in 2006. His wife, Tye, and four surviving children all participated in the decision to donate to the dental school.

While it will accept 20 students each year, the U.'s new building will have the capacity to expand to include up to 50. Powell said there are no current plans in place to increase the class size beyond 20.

Their program, he said, is unique among recent new dental schools because it is housed at a major health sciences institution and academic university, which provides an opportunity for research and collaboration with other fields. Students have already started studying genetic links to oral diseases.

The new 70,000-square-foot building, currently in the design phase, will feature a dental clinic, classrooms, research laboratories and administrative offices for faculty.

Construction is expected to begin in early 2013 and should be completed in late 2014. Prior to that, dental students will share classroom and lab space with medical, nursing and pharmacy students at the university.

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com

Twitter: wendyleonards

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