When East Carolina University first considered the establishment of a dental school in Greenville, it reflected growing concern about access to dental professionals in North Carolina. The state is well below the national average in the number of dentists serving its residents, and rural counties in particular suffer from a lack of adequate care.
The dental school will begin accepting students in 2011, but the problems threaten to be much worse by that time. That looming crisis should encourage the state to explore additional avenues for making dental care in North Carolina more accessible and affordable to all of the state’s residents.
East Carolina officials began exploring a dental school proposal in 2002, when many health officials expressed concern about a growing shortage of dentists. At the time, the state lagged behind the national average in the number of dentists per 10,000 residents, with North Carolina reporting about four dentists per capita to the United States average of six. At that time, however, the state was seeing a slight increase in the number of practicing dentists and alarm was somewhat muted.
That can no longer be the case. In 2007, North Carolina saw a 0.7 percent decline in the number of dentists per 10,000 residents, the first such drop recorded. More than half of the state’s counties have three or fewer dentists per 10,000 residents and four lack a practicing dental professional. Many of these counties are in the state’s rural corners, in places like Martin, Beaufort, Lenoir and Greene counties.
As it does so well, the University of North Carolina system moved to address a public problem through education. A partnership between UNC-Chapel Hill and East Carolina will soon see an expanded dental school at the state’s flagship university and a new dental school amid the system’s fastest growing school. In the coming years, that should help alleviate the shortage and improve dental care in rural communities.
Providing dentists in those places is only part of the problem, however. Rising costs leave many residents without preventative care, and choosing treatment options on the basis of cost. The state is also seeing more people with tooth problems going to emergency rooms because they could not afford regular care.
Lawmakers acted swiftly to fund East Carolina’s dental school, recognizing the scope of need in North Carolina. But the state can ill afford to delay further action to improve access to care or reduce costs until the first students complete the course of study. This is a tight budget year, but this issue demands consideration in this year’s legislative session.