PORTLAND, Maine — For decades, dental schools across the country were more likely to close than open. Now that trend is reversing.
The founding dean of the University of New England’s new College of Dental Medicine, James Koelbl, has been on both ends of the trend.
He was an administrator at Loyola University of Chicago when it closed its School of Dentistry in 1993.
According to the Institute of Medicine book “ Dental Education at a Crossroads: Challenges and Change,” Loyola’s dental program was one of six to close its doors between 1984 and 1994.
Now Koelbl is at UNE and part of the wave of dental schools opening up nationwide.
Classes are starting this fall at new dental schools at East Carolina University, University of Southern Nevada and Midwestern University, among other locations. Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine will open its new dental school at its Bradenton, Fla., campus in 2012, and the next fall, when dental school classes begin at UNE’s Portland campus, Yale University will open up its dental program as well.
The wave of new schools comes in response to a statistical need and a crowd of dentist hopefuls.
Koelbl said there were about 12,000 dental school applicants in America last year and only 4,800 openings for first-year dental students. He added that by around 2015, the number of dentists leaving the profession — mostly because of retirement — is projected to surpass the number of those entering it.
But with the example of Loyola and many other schools still fresh, Koelbl knows the vitality of dental programs can rise and fall dramatically. While he expects an influx of interested candidates when the UNE College of Dental Medicine begins accepting applications next summer, he knows the school’s long-term challenge is remaining viable one or two decades down the road, when dental education nationwide inevitably returns to harder times.
“The supply and demand of dentists has traditionally been cyclical, so this is something that will come around again,” said Frances Miliano, president of the Augusta-based Maine Dental Association.
“I think that’s a real concern,” acknowledged Koelbl during a Thursday morning interview, adding, “But the last time the pool of dental applicants skyrocketed like this, it was a very different country.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, he suggested, dental schools were producing more dentists than the general population statistically had a need for, creating a bubble that clogged the work force over the next few decades, diminishing job opportunities and making it hard for dental schools to attract new students.
Now, even with the explosion of new dental schools, the country’s population — and by extension, dental care needs — is outpacing the predicted influx of new dentists, he said.
“We’re still graduating the same number of students as we did in the ’70s and ’80s, but the population has grown by 100 million,” Koelbl said.
According to the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine, Maine is even more in need of dentists than most of America. The Pine Tree State has 48 dentists per 100,000 residents, compared with the U.S. average of 64 per 100,000. Further, those dentists who are in Maine, the Muskie School reported, are bunched up in more populated areas, such as the Portland area.
The College of Dental Medicine will open on UNE’s Portland campus with the assistance of a $5 million publicly approved bond.
Koelbl said the UNE dental school will be built, in part, to serve those underserved areas of Maine and northern New England. The new College of Dental Medicine will be the only such school in Maine, New Hampshire or Vermont. The closest postgraduate dental program is in the Boston area, where Tufts University, Harvard and Boston University are located.
Koelbl, who arrived in Portland from Southern California, where he helped found Western University of Health Sciences’ College of Dental Medicine, said UNE will place its fourth-year students in satellite dental clinics in rural areas and will favor applicants who have shown an interest in community service.
“I think it’s going to be a win-win-win,” said Dr. Lionel Vachon, who recently sold his private dental practice to become a full-time instructor in UNE’s Westbrook College of Health Professions School of Dental Hygiene. “You’re going to be able to address a shortage of dentists in rural Maine, students are going to get clinical exposure, and patients are going to get access to affordable dental care.”
Said Miliano: “They definitely are going to have a kind of public health bent in the school and will be gearing their students toward going out to underserved areas for their clinical rotations, so that’ll be a good thing to target those areas. I think anytime you can get folks into those areas and expose them to those things, it might help debunk stereotypes about what those places are like. Anytime you increase exposure you increase the odds that something will click and they’ll want to stay and work in those areas — that they’ll see the pluses of some of those areas and decide to set down roots there.”
Koelbl also touted UNE’s ability to establish an innovative program as another selling point that could help maintain the Portland dental school’s popularity through another potential bubble burst. The concentrated fourth-year clinical exposure, heavy interactivity with other medical programs on the campus and the potential use of online courses — which Koelbl said have yet to take off in dental education as they have in other college programs — will help differentiate UNE from many of its more established competitors.
“Dental education hasn’t changed a whole lot in 50 or 75 years,” Koelbl said. “As dental educators, we always talk about ways we can do things differently and move programs forward. There’s always this concern [in the industry]: ‘Are these new schools going to be quality programs with strong bases in research and science?’ And the answer is, ‘Yes,’ but I think there’s also an opportunity to move along all of these new initiatives we’ve all been talking about all these years.”