APPALACHIA — Virginia has one dental school that accepts 60 in-state students annually, and Dr. Emily Bowen wants to see more Southwest Virginia students among that group.
Bowen, head of Mountain Empire Community College’s dental assistant program, hosted 15 students from Wise, Lee and Scott counties and Norton area for Friday’s Dental Explorer Day at the college’s Center for Workforce Innovation in Appalachia.
The event allowed students to talk with VCU dental school recruitment director Dr. Tiffany Williams and staffer Lindsay Smith about preparing for a dental career.
“It’s a great career opportunity and it’s why we wanted to highlight it for students,” Bowen said. “It’s also about improving access to dental care at every level in our region.
The demand for dental assistants and dental hygienists is enough that employment growth nationally could reach 20% in the next four years, Smith told the group, with the average yearly salary more than $72,000. Several Virginia community colleges offer two-year programs, she added, and VCU and Old Dominion University offer four-year programs that can lead to training as certified dental assistants and dental hygienists.
Smith encouraged the group to work on their grade point averages since most program admissions are based on competitive GPA scores.
“In this region, there is not a lot of access to dentists,” Williams told the group.
Dentists can make an average of $190,000, Williams said, and interested students should be making preparations as soon as high school. Science courses, community service, school activities and volunteerism are good preparation for continuing the same work in college, she said.
By the freshman year of college, Williams added, students should continue taking chemistry, organic chemistry, biology, physics and biochemistry. Besides maintaining a strong GPA, she said, prospective dental school applicants should pick their major and work on building up about 100-150 hours of shadowing dentists.
Clubs and organizations are also important for a well-rounded dental student, Williams said, and students should be getting to know professors who can given them solid recommendations for their applications.
An applicant to VCU’s school of dentistry can expect to be competing against 2,000 or more other applicants, Williams said. If accepted, a VCU dental student will pay about $30,000 a year in addition to housing, books and other costs. She said that enterprising students can find scholarships that will cover the cost of the four year program from the National Health Service Corps or military scholarships that will require a service commitment after graduation.
Friday’s group of students got some hands-on dental work experience in addition to the career briefing. With basic tools of the trade — carving knives, scribing picks, alcohol lamps and blocks of dental wax — the students learned how to carve teeth for prosthetics. After that, the group learned how to cast dental impressions with mold rubber and how to make a teeth whitening tray to take home.
Bowen said programs like Friday’s meeting with VCU dental school staff are important in dealing with a regional shortage of dental care access.
An optimal ratio of dentists in any area should be about 62 per 100,000 population, Bowen said, but the LENOWISCO region — Wise, Lee and Scott counties and Norton — has a population of approximately 80,000 people and fewer than 30 dentists in the area.
“That’s less than half the number of dentists we should have,” said Bowen, “and patients in the area have to wait weeks or months for appointments. Often, they may have to travel to the Tri-Cities or other locations, and transportation can be a problem for many people here.”
Bowen said the recent groundbreaking for a free dental clinic at The Health Wagon in cooperation with Lincoln Memorial University is another step toward making dental care affordable and accessible in the area.
“Often, by the time someone is able to get an appointment for dental work, their dental problems have gotten beyond the point of restorative care and that means teeth have to be extracted,” said Bowen.
“Today’s event is one way to help recruit more dentists from this region,” Bowen said. “If they’re from here, they may be more likely to come back here to practice. It serves not only them by finding a profession but also residents here in having better dental care.”