Arkansas is one of only a few states that does not have its own dental school. That could change in a few years, as UAMS is exploring that option. But it’s not going to be easy, and it’s not going to be cheap.
“If everything went as quickly as it could go, I would say it’s at least three years from now until a student would actually enroll,” said Dr. Dan Rahn, UAMS chancellor.
UAMS started its Center for Dental Education in 2012 with the idea of eventually opening a dental school. It includes a dental practice where students in their fourth year at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Dentistry can serve rotations and have clinical experiences.
Rahn said he told the UAMS board of trustees during their January meeting that the next year will be focused on developing a full-fledged dental school. He has appointed a task force, a consultant will be engaged, and facility and equipment needs will be assessed. Public funding and private philanthropy also will be sought. Eventually, the school would perhaps graduate 30-40 students a year, about the number Arkansas needs to produce annually.
“Building a dental school is like building a hospital, so historically they’ve been capital intensive. But there are some newer, more innovative educational models out there, and that’s what we really need to explore,” he said.
The high cost of building a dental school has been one of the reasons Arkansas does not have one, Rahn said. Another is an historic division between oral health and the rest of the health care industry.
“Dentistry has been seen as a separate profession that’s somehow different from other health professions, but the relationship between oral health and total physical health is a very strong and direct one, so I think that we’re now realizing that they’re just very important members of the health care team,” he said.
Currently, the state’s prospective dentists fan out to six out-of-state schools, many of them to Memphis, said Billy Tarpley, Arkansas State Dental Association executive director. A 2012 survey of the association’s members found that more than 60% said they would either support a state-operated dental school or would support it under the right circumstances.
“One of the things that other states have enjoyed is the ability for dentists in that state to kind of rally around that school,” Tarpley said. “Right now, Arkansas dentists rally around six different schools, so we lack that cohesiveness that many other states enjoy.”
Whatever UAMS creates, Tarpley hopes it’s affordable. Today’s dental school graduates nationally average $249,000 in student debt. Setting up a practice costs somewhere around $100,000 per operator, he said.
Those kinds of dollar figures make it less likely that a young dentist will set up his own shop, especially in an underserved area. Instead, they are more likely to work in a large group or corporate practice.
“We have young dentists in Arkansas that are literally coming out of school with debt way north of $300,000,” he said.