October 18, 2007 in Business

Bert Caldwell: Bringing dentists to region’s small towns

Bert Caldwell The Spokesman-Review
 

If you live in a small town in Eastern Washington, chances are better than 50-50 that your dentist will retire within the next six years. If your town has a dentist.

And if it does not have a dentist, attracting new companies, young couples, over even retaining long-time residents will be like – sorry – pulling teeth.

The looming shortage will affect cities as well, but getting more dentists into rural areas figured heavily into the creation of Regional Initiatives in Dental Education, or RIDE, which next year will bring eight University of Washington dental students to the Riverpoint Campus. They will take their first year of classes in Spokane, transfer to Seattle the next two years, then finish the four-year program with rotations through small communities.

Already, some of the 55 students admitted each year to the UW dentistry school rotate through Spokane, Yakima, Ellensburg and Othello. They also do tours on the Washington Dental Service SmileMobile. Dentists do not do residencies after graduating, so the rotations are the final stage of their formal education.

Dr. Wendy Mouradian, RIDE director, says supporters hope the rotations create attachments that will draw graduates back into the countryside to establish new practices. According to the Washington Department of Health, there are half as many dentists per capita in rural counties like Columbia as there are in Spokane County. And a greater percentage plan to retire by 2013.

“That’s one reason we want to encourage Eastern Washington training,” says Mouradian, a pediatrician who has been a dental education advocate since helping draft a 2000 report on oral health, the first ever from the U.S. Surgeon General.

Her father was a dentist who set up his practice in a town of 5,000 in upstate New York. She saw the need firsthand.

Eight new students per year may seem too small a response to the dentist shortage, but Mouradian says the number is about in line with the count of students enrolled in first-year classes around the Northwest that feed the UW School of Medicine in Seattle. Called WWAMI, for Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho, the program has returned doctors to their home states for more than two decades.

WWAMI will join RIDE on the Riverpoint Campus, allowing the dental and 20 medical students to attend the same classes in anatomy, histology and other subjects. Add the Eastern Washington University dental hygienist program with its new clinics and labs, the Washington State School of Nursing in its new building, and the South Hill hospitals, and Riverpoint becomes a caldron of classroom and clinical education, as well as research.

“We’re trying to attract top researchers as part of this program,” says Art DiMarco, RIDE’s EWU interim dental director.

Even though all the elements are not yet in place, he says, the potential for the whole to be so much greater than the sum of its parts has higher education officials elsewhere drooling.

“It’s an opportunity that’s just unparalleled,” DiMarco says.

It’s also one frustrated for a long time by infighting for money and programs among the various state-funded institutions. Lobbying by Greater Spokane Incorporated, the realization the state needed more facilities to train doctors and dentists, and a fatter state budget finally buried the lancet.

“This is many, many years of the stars finally aligning,” DiMarco says.

Mouradian says the UW dental school, which attracts 1,000 applicants for its 55 openings, has already noticed significant interest from those who want to start their education in Spokane. “Word has gotten around,” she says.

If RIDE succeeds, Mouradian says, the program will raise care levels in every community where a student does a rotation, or a graduate buys or starts a practice. Raising too the research capabilities in Spokane, which is rapidly taking its game in science research to new levels.

“We have the chance to create something really unique in Spokane,” Mouradian says.

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