ECU opens third School of Dental Medicine community service learning center

LILLINGTON – Partnership and collaboration laid the groundwork for the East Carolina University School of Dental Medicine’s newest community service learning center, celebrated March 24 with a ribbon cutting ceremony.

The Lillington site – a 7,700-square-foot facility located off U.S. 401 – is the third of eight to 10 service learning centers planned for operation in underserved areas across the state. The facilities combine clinical education and patient care.

Led by ECU dental faculty members, fourth-year dental students will spend eight-week clinical rotations at the centers while general dentistry residents will also hone their skills at the facilities. The fully functional general dentistry office features 16 treatment rooms, X-ray equipment, educational space and more.

ECU Chancellor Steve Ballard described the dental community service learning centers as key to the university’s role as a national model of public service and regional transformation.

“(The center will be) a hallmark of our dental school and also something that will be very beneficial to the citizens in the community,” said Dr. Phyllis Horns, vice chancellor for the Division of Health Sciences at ECU.

“Many of you here today can rightfully claim a role in the success of our school and the Lillington center as it comes to life,” added School of Dental Medicine Dean Dr. Greg Chadwick. “We’re excited and look forward to being your neighbor.”

Located between Raleigh and Fayetteville, Lillington is the county seat of Harnett County. The county’s population is approximately 112,700 and there is one dentist for every 10,000 people, according to 2011 data. Harnett County, like other rural North Carolina counties, struggled with the loss of its textile industry. However, Johnson Tilghman of Harnett Forward Together pointed to the dental center and the addition of other “badly needed” health care services as evidence of forward progress.

“We did have hope, we did have vision, we had determination, but we also had collaboration,” Tilgham said. “We all came together to deal with a problem and we have done it successfully.”

Other partners in developing the center include First Choice Community Health Centers, the town of Lillington, Harnett County and numerous local legislators and community members.

“The commitment to this has never waivered, has never faltered,” said Harnett County Manager Tommy Burns. “It took a lot of planning and from an idea, we’re here today to witness this great event. We’re really proud to be a part of Pirate Nation.”

Overall, North Carolina ranks 47th out of the 50 states in the number of dentists per capita, according to the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The state averages three dentists for every 10,000 people residing in rural areas, while it averages nearly five dentists for every 10,000 people residing in urban areas. Nationally, the ratio is six dentists for every 10,000 people.

Goals of the school are to improve access to dental care, to educate students from underserved and underrepresented populations, and to graduate dentists who have a desire to practice in underserved areas.

“Growing up in a small community, doctors, dentists and vets were always the leaders in the community,” said Kevin Patel, a second-year dental student from Carthage. “And I wanted to be one of those people.”

Patel said the service-learning aspect was what led him to attend ECU’s School of Dental Medicine, because its faculty and students are “giving back to the parts of North Carolina that need it the most.”

Centers are already serving patients in Ahoskie, Elizabeth City and Lillington, and others are under construction in Sylva, Spruce Pine, Davidson County and Robeson County. They provide dental care to Medicaid enrollees and other members of the community who lack regular dental care.

Chadwick revealed at the ribbon cutting that patients from 34 different North Carolina counties have been served, to date, at the centers in Ahoskie and Elizabeth City. The ECU Community Service Learning Center is located at 80 Autumn Fern Trail, Lillington. The center’s phone number is 910-814-4191.

March 24, 2014
By Kathryn Kennedy
ECU News Services