The countdown is over, and excitement is in the air following the historic opening of the Hunt School of Dental Medicine. This summer, the first of many students to come arrived at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso to begin their journey to becoming dentists.
The new dental school is expected to help reduce the shortage of dental care in the Paso del Norte region, a relief many dentists in the community are celebrating. At the same time, community dentists are ready to help current and future students become the next generation of El Paso dentists.
Kelley Brooks, D.D.S., chief dentist for the City of El Paso Department of Public Health, understands that journey. She came to El Paso in 2009 on a 30-day contract with the Department of Public Health’s pediatric dental clinic and is still here today. She believes Hunt School of Dental Medicine students, specifically those from out of town, will find themselves in a similar situation.
“The reason I felt compelled and drawn to stay here is because El Paso is welcoming and rewarding. It’s more rewarding for me to make a difference for someone than it is for the patient to receive care,” Dr. Brooks said. “I feel once students are exposed to this community, and all the love El Paso pours into them, we’ll be able to retain at least 75% of the individuals who get their education from the dental school. I really do believe they will love it here.”
An influx of dentists is needed in El Paso and West Texas, where many suffer from poor dental health due to a lack of access to affordable care. In 2017, only about half of El Paso’s residents visited a dentist. In El Paso County, there’s only one dentist for every 4,840 residents, compared to the national average of one dentist for every 1,638. Since most graduating dentists typically practice in proximity to their dental school, the opening of the Hunt School of Dental Medicine will help reduce the shortage of dentists in the Paso del Norte region.
“I think 10 years from now, we’ll see a more robust dental community in El Paso,” said Krystelle Anaya, D.D.S., who practices at Trawood Family Dental. “A dental school offers high quality, multidisciplinary care under one roof. I think it will help El Paso become a place where people on both sides of the border can access more advanced care.”
The Hunt School of Dental Medicine is the first dental school to open in Texas in more than 50 years. It is also the first dental school on the U.S.-Mexico border and in West Texas.
The school is housed in the Medical Sciences Building II, a new building on the TTUHSC El Paso campus, where students will train in the Dental Learning Center. The center features 80 stations equipped with high-tech simulation manikins and a fabrication laboratory where students will craft dental appliances using 3D scanners and advanced CAD/CAM machines. The state-of-the-art facility will allow students to practice modern dentistry for 2025 and beyond.
Close to 900 applied to be a part of the historic class of 2025, which had only 40 spots. Nearly 35 community dentists like Drs. Anaya and Brooks assisted Hunt School of Dental Medicine faculty and administration in reviewing applications and interviewing finalists for the inaugural class. Future classes will have 60 students.
“I’ve helped with the interviews, and one of the best things about meeting these students is they’re excited about their future and eager to be in dentistry,” Dr. Anaya said. “It’s really refreshing to talk to people who are in the beginning of their careers; that gets me rejuvenated.”
There also is excitement among community dentists about the education students will receive, which will feature the most innovative curriculum in the country, following the footsteps of the Foster School of Medicine, which opened 11 years ago. As part of curriculum requirements, dental students will learn medical Spanish, allowing them to bridge language and cultural barriers to deliver the highest quality of oral health care. The Hunt School of Dental Medicine also will offer a unique education for students through culturally competent, hands-on training and an early introduction to clinical experiences among a diverse population. Students will see patients in the clinic within six weeks of starting the program versus the typical timeframe in the second year like other dental schools.
“One of the major complaints among dental students across the country is they’re not receiving enough experience with patients,” Dr. Anaya said. “So I know the focus of the dental school will be to provide that to their students. Of course, the more time they spend in clinic, the more experienced they’ll be upon graduation.”
There will be no better place to learn by experience than the Texas Tech Dental Oral Health Clinic. The 38,000-square-foot public dental clinic comes equipped with 145 treatment chairs and will offer reduced-cost dental care. Dr. Brooks envisions how the clinic will benefit some of her patients from the City of El Paso’s pediatric clinic.
“There’s a crucial need when our patients age out of our clinic at 22. There are very few nonprofit clinics in El Paso that we can refer them to,” Dr. Brooks said. “The arrival of the dental school and the Texas Tech Dental Oral Health Clinic will allow us to transfer our adult patients to them. That will decrease the number of individuals who wait extended periods to be seen for routine care or a periodic exam.”
Both Drs. Brooks and Anaya, as well as other dentists in the area, look forward to working with the Hunt School of Dental Medicine and mentoring students who, in just years, will become colleagues.
“It will be a breath of fresh air for us in El Paso to have a younger mindset,” Dr. Brooks said. “They’ll be a refreshing addition to the dental community, and we’re excited to one day call them our peers.”
Dr. Anaya added: “I always thought a dental school in El Paso was a far-off dream for years down the road, but it’s been amazing to see it come together. The Hunt School of Dental Medicine’s dean, Dr. Richard Black, and TTUHSC El Paso’s president, Dr. Richard Lange, and community leaders have really seen this vision and mission come together beautifully.”