Universities Want Dental Schools, But is Need There?

By: Lilly Rockwell, The News Service of Florida
By: Lilly Rockwell, The News Service of Florida

TAMPA, Fla., June 24, 2011 -

Does Florida need more dentists?

That’s the question at hand as the governing board for the state university system prepares to consider whether to allow more universities to offer dental schools. Currently, the University of Florida is the only state university that has a dental school, but at least three other universities are considering starting one.

The Board of Governors for the State University System heard a report Thursday on a Department of Health survey released this year that shows that there are enough new dentists entering the profession through 2050 to offset any attrition due to retiring dentists.

An estimated 3,054 new dentists will be added to Florida’s workforce every decade, the Department of Health study shows, which will more than offset any losses. And that doesn’t even include data from the Lake Erie College of Medicine dental school, which will open in Tampa in 2012 and graduate about 100 students each year.

But that same study shows that there aren’t enough dentists in rural Florida. Most Florida dentists work in South Florida, leaving rural counties in the Panhandle and Central Florida underserved.

“Southeast Florida has the most dentists,” said R.E. LeMon, the associate vice chancellor for academic and student Affairs. “There are from few to virtually no dentists residing in certain primarily rural areas of Florida.”

The Board of Governors will look more seriously at this issue at its September meeting. The University of Central Florida, Florida A&M University, and Florida Atlantic University are all considering opening dental schools and the University of Florida wants to expand its school.

“Whether we need more dentists and how we go about getting there is certainly something the board has to consider,” said Board of Governors Chairwoman Ava Parker.

One reason these schools are eager to open dental schools is they want to replicate the University of Florida’s successful – and money-making – program. According to a presentation by Teresa Dolan, a dean at the College of Dentistry at the University of Florida, the university took in $17 million in research dollars thanks to the school.

But, dental schools are also very expensive to create. The American Dental Association says in 2007 the average dental school cost $93,000 per student.

Florida has over 11,000 dentists and ranks fourth nationally in the number of dentists.

One reason dentists are unwilling to set up shop in rural areas has to do with Medicaid reimbursement rates, university officials explained. Because the reimbursement rates for Medicaid patients is low, dentists with huge student loans to pay off are reluctant to open an office in an area with a high percentage of Medicaid patients.

Florida universities should look at incentives for dentists to work in rural Florida, such as loan forgiveness programs, LeMon suggested. Universities interested in offering their own dental schools are pitching their programs as the solution to the lack of dentists in rural areas.

Florida A&M University President James Ammons said after the Board of Governors meeting that his school’s dental program would focus on providing dentists to low-income areas. “All of the unmet needs and issues are right at the core of FAMU’s dental model,” Ammons said.

The Florida A&M University Board of Trustees will vote on the issue at its August meeting.

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