By Robert Gray/El Paso Inc. Editor – Courtesy of El Paso Inc.
Students begin classes at El Paso’s new dental school – the only one in West Texas and first to open in the state in more than 50 years – next week.
Six weeks later, students will perform their first treatment on a live patient at the school’s oral health clinic – “a very simple restoration,” said the school’s dean, Dr. Richard Black, while leading a tour of the facility on Tuesday.
I had to clarify that he had really said six weeks. He had.
“We are looking to start them off the way they will be practicing,” said Black, a longtime El Paso dentist.
He and other local dentists I chatted with at the ribbon-cutting for the clinic said while dental school is not like medical school and is more hands-on, putting students in a clinical environment as early and as often as the Hunt School of Dental Medicine will is something new.
That is one of the reasons the school attracted 1,000 applicants for 40 slots. Another attraction: For young El Pasoans who have dreamed of becoming dentists, it provides them the opportunity to pursue that dream locally.
“Hopefully, they can attract more local talent (to dentistry) that can then stay here,” said El Paso dentist Dr. Jose Alvarez. “That’s what El Paso needs: more local dentists that know the community and understand the people.”
In El Paso County, there’s one dentist for every 4,840 people, compared to the national average of one for every 1,638. In 2017, only 50% of El Paso residents visited a dentist, according to Texas Tech.
“More patients will stay here and get dental care because they know you were raised in the same community – maybe you went to the same high school or are part of the same family – so it’s a big deal,” Alvarez said.
Another dentist I spoke to, Dr. Minyoung Lee, said she had not heard of El Paso until a dentist here encouraged her to visit and introduced her to the area. She liked it, left Los Angeles and started practicing here a couple of years ago.
She found a city that was larger and busier than she expected and was impressed by its friendliness and diversity.
“I am from Korea, and there is a fairly large Korean population here,” Lee said. “I was very surprised.”
The dental school, she said, is “going to bring a greater focus on El Paso. People are going to hear about the dental school and will connect that with El Paso. So a lot of dentists will definitely have an interest in this area, and it will be better known.”
The oral health clinic is where students will gain real-world experience under the guidance of instructors (one for every six students). Dental services will be provided to the community at a reduced cost.
A couple of surprising facts: With 130 chairs, it is the largest dental clinic between Dallas, Phoenix and Denver. And when it’s operating at full capacity, Black expects it to reach 50,000 to 60,000 “patient encounters” a year.
It will take time to get there. Black said they expect to enroll 60 students a year going forward, hitting a total enrollment of around 240.
“This is a room we are very proud of,” he said, walking into a room equipped with computers, tabletop milling machines and 3D printers. “This is the way dentistry will be practiced by the time they are out of school.”
Some dentists are already using scanners, computers and mills to produce crowns in-office while patients wait.
But 3D printing is not used widely yet. One challenge: 3D printed materials are not strong enough. But, Black said, researchers are working to solve that and other challenges, adding that their faculty includes a dental materials researcher.
“You can make a 3D printed denture complete with teeth and gums and support in about three hours for about $30,” he said.
Asked if they planned to add a dental hygiene program in the future, Black said they hope to eventually offer a bachelor’s degree program in hygiene to complement the associate degree program offered by El Paso Community College.
This region has long had an acute shortage of medical professionals and lagged other communities of its size in many socio-economic and health measures. Young people, some who would rather stay in their hometown, too often have to leave to pursue high-paying careers.
But if the medical school, nursing school and graduate school of biomedical sciences that preceded it are any indication – and the research activity, job creation and investment they have spurred – the dental school at Texas Tech is going to do a lot to help change that.
It’s another big accomplishment for El Paso.