ECU opens seventh dental service learning center in Spruce Pine

A light snow fell on East Carolina University’s newest dental service learning center in Spruce Pine on Jan. 30, as stakeholders gathered for a ribbon cutting to celebrate the facility for dental education and oral health care. In the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the snow flurries and frequent wind gusts were a reminder of the School of Dental Medicine’s growing statewide footprint. “Our mission is to provide public service, to be a national model for regional transformation,” said Chancellor Steve Ballard. “We have no better example of what East Carolina tries to do for regions…than these service learning clinics.

Eight to 10 community service learning centers are planned for underserved areas of North Carolina. The dental clinics are core to the school’s unique educational model, said Dr. Greg Chadwick, and its commitment to increasing the number of primary care dentists for the state while simultaneously improving access to care.

“It’s harder and harder to get students to practice in rural areas,” said N.C. Sen. Ralph Hise. “But there’s one institution in North Carolina that does it and does it well, and that’s East Carolina.”

Fourth-year students receive clinical training at the centers from ECU dental faculty while general dentistry residents also hone their skills at the facilities. The state-of-the-art general dentistry centers feature treatment rooms, X-ray equipment, educational space and more.

“By bringing students…to live here and work here, you know some of them are going to fall in love with the mountains,” said Lynda Kinnane, director of the Toe River Health District. “And they’re going to want to live here, just like we do.

“We’ve come a long way (toward improving oral health)…but we have a long way to go. And this center is the pavement on the road to get there.”

Fourth-year dental student Kyle Duncan – a member of the inaugural class – isn’t sure if he’ll get to complete a rotation at Spruce Pine before graduation. However, he’s already committed to serving patients in Mitchell, Avery and Yancey counties.

“I feel like a big part of who I am is growing up here,” said Duncan, a Bakersville native. “It’s just a special place for me. People here are very polite, very appreciative. I think the students will have some of their best experiences with the patients here.”

“A lot of people drive to Asheville or Johnson City just to get a dentist appointment, and that certainly cuts down on the frequency of care,” he explained. “People will only go when something hurts, and that’s not good.”

Duncan is the recipient of a scholarship from the Samuel L. Phillips Family Foundation. It will provide full tuition and living expenses for three students over the next 12 years who pledge to spend at least five years practicing dental medicine in western North Carolina.

Other ECU dental community service learning centers are already serving patients in Ahoskie, Elizabeth City, Lillington and Sylva. Centers in Davidson and Robeson counties are also set to open this winter, and an eighth center is under construction in Brunswick County.

Any member of the community – including Medicaid patients – may receive dental care at the centers. The center is scheduled to begin accepting patients in March.

“We’re in a time of tremendous change in healthcare,” said Rebecca Carter, president and chief nursing officer at Blue Ridge Regional Hospital. “Never have we been more focused on wellness, on prevention. Without oral health, there is no health.”

The Spruce Pine center is located on the campus of Blue Ridge Regional Hospital at 179 Hospital Drive. Appointments can be scheduled by calling 828-765-0110.