PORTLAND, Maine — The University of New England has opened the first school of dentistry in northern New England and plans to use the school to provide oral health care for rural communities.
The College of Dental Medicine campus on Stevens Avenue opened last week, with an inaugural class of 64 students.
Dean James Koelbl said the college is filling a void in the region.
“This is one of the largest areas in the country that doesn’t have a dental school,” he said, noting that the closest dental school is in the Boston area.
The four-year program aims to increase the number of dentists practicing in the region’s rural communities, where oral care is often scarce, Koelbl said.
“Obviously, northern New England, outside of Portland, is made up of rural communities,” he said. “It’s harder to recruit students and dentists to practice in those areas. If we can create a dental program in Maine and recruit from rural areas, especially Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, train them locally, get them into clinics in their fourth year, we can increase chance of them practicing here.”
Students who leave the state to learn dentistry do not usually return, he said.
University of New England’s facilities will include a simulation clinic and a 70-chair dental clinic, with electronic paperwork, digital X-ray machines and computers at each chair.
The college was made possible in part by a $5 million bond passed by Maine voters in 2010. The bond was designated to build dental schools, support community clinics and student “externships,” where students work under the supervision of licensed dentists to provide additional dental care for patients in traditionally underserved areas.
Students will attend three years of school at the college. Their fourth year they will spend the majority of their time practicing under supervision at community oral health care centers.
“The benefit to the state is that they will see people who are underserved,” Koelbl said. “It’s partly the education of the students and partly to provide services to those out in the rural parts of the state.”
By the college’s fourth year, University of New England hopes to be serving 12,000-15,000 patients annually in Portland and an additional 20,000-25,000 in the college’s community network.
In its first year, the college will have 24 students from 11 counties and 20 cities and towns in Maine. Five students are from New Hampshire and four are from Vermont. The remaining students represent 16 states and Canada.
University of New England will hold a formal dedication of the dental college Oct. 2.
University of New England offers more than 40 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Its main campus is in Biddeford.