January 22, 2008 -- If you build it, they will come. But will they stay? It's a key question faced by New Mexico legislators as they mull Gov. Bill Richardson's proposal to launch the state's first dental school.
Richardson proposed the school Jan. 15 in his State of the State address. "I’m recommending the creation of the first dental school in New Mexico to address our state’s gaps in oral health care," Richardson said, according to a text of the speech released by his office Web site. The proposal caught many people in the state by surprise; a dental school isn't even listed among the legislative priorities for the University of New Mexico for 2008.
Richardson's proposal lacked specifics, but he later asked the state Legislature to allocate $12 million to start a dental residency program at the University of New Mexico, some of which would be used to begin planning the dental school, according to an Associated Press report. The governor's office did not respond to requests for comment.
New Mexico has fewer dentists per person than most other states. In 2004 (the most recent year with statistics available), it had only 4.3 dentists per 10,000 people, compared to 6.0 per 10,000 for the country, according to the Web site StateMaster.com.
"And like most Western states, we have a distribution problem where dentists tend to congregate in urban areas," Mark Moores, executive director of the New Mexico Dental Association, told DrBicuspid.com. "So there's a problem of access to care in rural areas."
New Mexicans suffer from more dental disease than residents of most states; for example, 37 percent of third-graders there have untreated tooth decay, the sixth highest prevalence in the country.
New Mexico's population is one of the fastest growing in the country, and the state will need about 30 more dentists per year for the next two years, according to a 2003 estimate by L. Jackson Brown, D.D.S., Ph.D., associate executive director of the American Dental Education Association. Dr. Brown noted that building a school with only 30 students per class would be more expensive per student than larger schools which have economies of scale.
Dr. Brown doubts whether New Mexico could attract many students from other states, because there are already schools established in the region. Midwestern University this year opened a new dental school in neighboring Glendale, Arizona, with a projected class size of 100.
The New Mexico Dental Association has taken no position on the proposal for a new school. "The big question for the Legislature is going to be cost," said Moores. He said the governor planned to request $48 million for "bricks and mortar" and another $15 million in operating costs for the school.
In an editorial written before the state of the state address, the Albuquerque Journal argued that instead of a new dental school the state should increase its existing scholarship program. The state gives New Mexicans scholarships to study dentistry if they return to practice in New Mexico once they obtain their dental licenses; for every year of subsidy, they are required to practice a year in New Mexico.
After establishing their practices, most stay, said Moores. By contrast, he said, most graduates of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine practice in other states.
The Albuquerque Journal also argued for a new student loan program that would forgive a portion of the loan for each year that a dentist practiced in an underserved rural area.