On Tuesday, September 6, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso (TTUHSC El Paso) made a historic announcement.
Eager to hear the groundbreaking news, students, faculty and staff, as well as Texas Tech University (TTU) System leadership, local health professionals and community members, gathered at the TTUHSC El Paso campus for a press conference. Guests listened intently as President Richard Lange, M.D., M.B.A., unveiled the school’s plans for the establishment of West Texas’ first-ever school of dental medicine. Launched by a generous $25 million gift from the Woody and Gayle Hunt Family Foundation, the newly named Woody L. Hunt School of Dental Medicine (WLHSODM) will mark the first dental school to open in the state of Texas in nearly 50 years.
“This region is particularly underserved with respect to dental care — health care, in general, but especially with respect to dental care,” said Dr. Lange. “Lack of dental care has been linked to a number of disorders, including heart disease and stroke, pneumonia, diabetes, and cancer. These are the leading causes of death in El Paso County. And due to the lack of dental schools in the Paso del Norte region, few of our residents pursue a career in dentistry and practice in our region… The Woody L. Hunt School of Dental Medicine will fill that gap.”
El Paso County suffers from a severe lack of dentists, and has been classified as a dental Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA) by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). According to a study by the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS), the city currently has about one dentist for every 5,000 residents, compared to the state average of one for every 2,760.
Of the three dental schools that currently call Texas home, all are located in East Texas, more than 500 miles away from El Paso. Together, the three schools graduate some 300 students a year, yet few of these graduates opt to practice in West Texas. Between 2007 and 2011, only 13 graduates — 1.25 percent of all Texas dental school graduates — took up practice in El Paso.
This shortage of dentists has significant consequences for access to health care and overall health. Despite poor oral health being linked to serious health conditions, less than half of El Paso adults visit the dentist annually. Contrastingly, some 60 percent of the U.S. adult population pays a visit to the dentist every year, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.
Rick Black, D.D.S., M.S., an El Paso native, seasoned orthodontist and advocate of the dental school, believes that a key element of meeting the unique health needs of the border population is recruiting local talent — health professionals who understand and can relate to the people they serve. “There are a lot of [dentists] from out of the state who have trained in other schools and are here in El Paso working just to fill the need. The exciting thing about this new school is that we’re going to have a lot of [students] who are going to train here, understand the need and are going stay here to help our borderland,” Black said.
The opening of West Texas’ first dental school will not just fulfill this severe health need. It will also poise El Paso to compete with other major players in the health care sector. Woody Hunt, chairman of the Woody and Gayle Hunt Family Foundation, sees the expansion effort as an opportunity to put El Paso on the map. “If we want to be a competitive community with a high quality of life, we have to have competitive medical services. Whether it’s medical or dental services, we need to be on par with the rest… The best way to [reach this goal] is to get people that want to stay in El Paso and give them the opportunity for a high quality of education, with the hope that a high percentage of them will stay,” Hunt said.
The addition of TTUHSC El Paso’s fourth and newest school will add to the health sciences center’s significant economic footprint on the Paso del Norte economy. “We have 2,000 employees and 600 students who are getting an education they couldn’t have gotten 15 years ago. And those 2,000 jobs are good, high-paying jobs,” said TTU System Regent Rick Francis.
While the dental school has been a focus of TTUHSC El Paso’s expansion plans for decades, it was through the exceptional generosity of the Woody and Gayle Hunt Family Foundation that the vision finally became a reality for the border region. “Every day, I have the pleasure of meeting compassionate people who want to transform lives,” said TTUHSC El Paso Associate Vice Chancellor Victoria Pineda. “Their generosity — no matter the amount — impacts the landscape of our city and the people who live here. Today’s announcement is made possible thanks to a foundation that has the vision and desire to forever change health care and health education in our region.”
“It’s a really exciting time to be able to see how far the health sciences center has come here in El Paso in 20 years, to have the type of campus that we have, the type of research and medical education that we now have, thanks to Paul L. Foster [major donor after whom TTUHSC EL Paso’s Paul L. Foster School of Medicine was named] and the Woody Hunt Family Foundation,” echoed Robert Duncan, chancellor of the TTU System. “El Paso is a very unique health care community and we’re fortunate in the Texas Tech System to have Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso, and all it has accomplished in the last 20 years and all it will accomplish in the future.”
The WLHSODM is set to welcome its inaugural class in fall 2020.