Private college on track to open Utah's first dental school

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(Photo: Kris Carson, USN)

SOUTH JORDAN — With plans for a University of Utah dental school stalled, a private competitor is poised to provide the educational opportunity first.

The University of Southern Nevada, a private school that has a campus in South Jordan, plans to welcome 50 students to its four-year doctor of dental medicine (DMD) program in August 2011. Tuition is expected to be $50,000 to $55,000 per year.

But does Utah need a dental school? In a 2006 survey of Utah dentists, 95 percent said there was no shortage of dentists in the state.

Utah is the largest feeder state for dental students in the entire country. There's an incredible interest in the dental profession among undergraduate students here in Utah.

–Victor Sandoval

That may be more perception than reality, according to a Utah Medical Education Council study done in conjunction with that survey. It found that Utah has 56.8 dentists for every 10,000 people, down from 61.4 in 2002 and below the national average of 59.8.

The study said the dental work force in Utah may be "thinning," with 360 dentists projected to retire over the next 10 years and many expected to reduce practice hours.

Meanwhile, applications by Utahns looking to leave the state for dental school increased 72 percent from 2001 to 2005. Currently, their only in-state option is to take one year at the U. then finish at Creighton University in Nebraska, and that program only has 10 slots for Utah students.

"There still seems to be a considerable need in Utah," said Victor Sandoval, associate dean of academic affairs at USN's South Jordan campus. "Utah is the largest feeder state for dental students in the entire country. There's an incredible interest in the dental profession among undergraduate students here in Utah."

The school has already received more than 1,000 applications, with 17 percent coming from Utah and the greatest number from California. Prospective students can continue to apply through February.

Mark Cowley, an Ogden dentist and president of the Utah Dental Association, said the roughly 1,500 association members are split on whether the school is good for the state. Some point to the benefit to students, who will no longer have to bear the expense of going out of state, while others are concerned that Utah, especially the saturated Wasatch Front, already has enough dentists. A few have left the state in recent years to thin the competition.

"I'm kind of excited to see education here in our state," Cowley said. "It's a great opportunity for our children and grandchildren to receive dental degrees in their home state and not have to travel."

Two years ago, when the U. was tentatively proposing a dental school, the UDA voted by a razor-thin margin to support it, Cowley said. The U. received an anonymous $30 million donation for a new building but would have needed ongoing state funding of about $2 million per year to run the school.

U. officials say they still plan to start a dental school when the state's fiscal situation improves. A state school could offer lower tuition and more research opportunities, but legislators may be less likely to approve it once USN's program is up and running.

One typical function of a dental school that USN does plan to carry out is providing dental services through its students to people who don't have insurance and can't afford care elsewhere, including many Medicaid recipients.

State health officials say reaching that at-risk population, composed largely of Hispanics, refugees and rural residents, is the most crucial challenge for dental care in Utah today.

"I hope those who are trained here have the desire to continue seeing underserved populations," said Steven Steed, the Utah Department of Health's dental director. "There are certainly a lot of needs not being met. … I think we have a need to better utilize the current supply of dentists."

Cowley said few dentists — just 24 percent, according to the UMEC study — treat Medicaid patients because the reimbursement does not cover the cost. They have lobbied the Legislature to provide more state funding.

USN hopes to have its dental school accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation by the time the first class starts. The commission is scheduled to make a site visit in the spring and then consider the school's application at a meeting in July, Sandoval said.

Exterior construction is almost done on the school's $23 million, 125,000-square-foot, five-story building in the RiverPark Corporate Center, 10920 S. River Front Parkway (900 West). Sandoval said the school plans to move into the building a year from now. Until then, students will take classes alongside pharmacy and nursing students in USN's current facility.

The private, nonprofit college began as a pharmacy school in Henderson, Nev., in 1999.


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