The new Texas budget, signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott last week, offers some big wins for those of us concerned about the oral health – and overall health – of borderland residents.
At Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso, we’re delighted that the legislature and Gov. Abbott share our vision for a new addition to the TTUHSC El Paso campus: the Woody L. Hunt School of Dental Medicine. Texas lawmakers agreed to our request for $20 million in funding to establish the school, which is scheduled to welcome its first class of 40 future dentists in 2021. Subsequent incoming classes will be 60 students with a capacity of 240 students.
The state’s two-year appropriation will leverage the $25 million Hunt Family Foundation gift, that, in 2016, launched the effort to make the school a reality, and a $6 million Paso del Norte Health Foundation grant in support of the school’s curriculum.
The Hunt School of Dental Medicine will be the first dental school to open in Texas in over 50 years and will help address a severe shortage of dentists in West Texas.
For many years, it was believed that Texas’ three existing dental schools – hundreds of miles away in the eastern part of the state – would provide enough dentists to meet the needs of West Texas. But, historically, graduating dentists tend to establish practices near their alma maters. Forgive the dental pun, but here’s a jaw-dropping statistic: In the past decade, only 22 of 2,390 Texas dental school graduates have chosen to practice in West Texas. By establishing the Hunt School of Dental Medicine in El Paso, we expect to train dentists who will stay in the region.
This is a critical issue in El Paso and West Texas, where many residents are uninsured or underinsured, and where a lack of dentists prevents residents from receiving adequate oral health care throughout their lives. Problems with teeth or the mouth can result in a cascade of social and physical problems, including missed days of work and school, low academic performance by children and malnutrition – particularly among our elderly population. Periodontal disease is also linked to chronic inflammation that damages other systems of the body.
The addition of the Hunt School of Dental Medicine to the TTUHSC El Paso campus will help reverse these disturbing trends and put El Pasoans and other West Texas residents on a track to better oral health. One great benefit to the community will be the dental clinic that will accompany the school. The 38,000-square-foot clinic, equipped with 130 treatment chairs, will be located on campus, where students, under faculty supervision, will provide reduced-cost dental care.
At TTUHSC El Paso, we are excited about the outlook for the dental school and the transformative effect it will have on oral health care in the borderland. It will certainly be a future with many more healthy smiles among West Texans, young and elderly. We offer our deepest thanks to Gov. Abbott and the legislature – especially our local delegation – for the financial support that will allow us to secure this future for our region.
Dr. Richard A. Lange is president of Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso and dean of the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine.