Dr. Vernon Burke

When we think about staying on top of our health, we tend to worry about our blood pressure, our cholesterol and our weight. But too often we overlook another critical area of our physical wellbeing – oral hygiene.

Just one visit to the dentist each year can drastically cut down on tooth decay, gum disease and problems that could ultimately lead to other health concerns. Poor dental health is also linked to other chronic diseases, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, lung disease and stroke.

In 2017, more than 17 percent of 16 to 18 year olds in Texas missed school because of problems with their teeth or mouth. And in that same year, only 50 percent of El Paso residents visited a dentist.

Health insurance is part of the reason the number is so low but so is the lack of education and awareness about oral health preventive care.

Happily, that is about to change. I am excited to support the Woody L. Hunt School of Dental Medicine at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso.

The need for dental care and education is not unique to El Paso; the school would be meeting a broader regional need. Believe it or not, there are 51 Texas counties west of I-35 that are without a single general dental practice.

When you look at Texas’ three dental schools on a map, you begin to see why. They are all located in the central and eastern part of the state – in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. And most dental school graduates tend to stay in the same area where they attended school.

I took a different approach myself. I was lucky enough to come to El Paso for some post-graduate surgical training. I quickly realized there was a need here for quality dental care, and my family and I fell in love with the people and places that make our city unique.

Recently, I had the pleasure of talking with more than 70 fellow community members who came out to learn about the planned dental school.

As health care professionals, we see the value in a local school that can offer continuing education and training on cutting edge techniques. Through this school, our profession will also be able to give back. The Woody L. Hunt School of Dental Medicine will include a clinic, providing low-cost treatment to those needing assistance and offering hands-on training for faculty-supervised students.

Texas has not created a new dental school in more than 50 years, back when the state’s population was roughly 11 million. It is now more than 28 million. The proposed school at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso will help our region, our profession and our state.

I hope my fellow colleagues are just as excited as I am to welcome the inaugural class in 2021.

Dr. Vernon Burke is president of the El Paso District Dental Society.