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.
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.
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