ECU to build dental center in Spruce Pine

Chancellor Steve Ballard announces the selection of Spruce Pine for a new ECU dental clinic.


SPRUCE PINE, N.C.   (Aug. 2, 2011)   —   The mountain town of Spruce Pine has been selected as the site of an educational and patient-care facility of the East Carolina University School of Dental Medicine.

ECU announced Tuesday, Aug. 2, at Mayland Community College that it will build one of its community service learning centers in the Mitchell County community. At the center, dental students and residents will train and, together with ECU faculty members, provide care to residents of the Mayland area — Mitchell, Avery and Yancey counties.

ECU Chancellor Steve Ballard praised the support of the local legislative delegation, community leaders and Blue Ridge Community Hospital, which will partner with the school to establish the center. “They have made all the difference as we’ve tried to move forward,” Ballard said. “We’re all tickled (a center) will be in Mitchell County.”

Spruce Pine, a town of about 2,200 near the base of Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi, is the fifth site to be named for what will eventually be 10 such centers across the state. The other sites identified so far are Ahoskie and Elizabeth City in eastern North Carolina, Lillington in central North Carolina, and Sylva in the western part of the state.

“North Carolina has one of the poorest dental-population ratios in the country,” said Dr. James R. Hupp, dean of the ECU School of Dental Medicine. “We’re going to hope our school puts a dent in that in a very positive way.”

North Carolina averages about four dentists for every 10,000 people, below the national average of 5.8 per 10,000, according to the federal Institute of Medicine. The ratio has declined recently as the population has increased faster than the supply of practitioners.

The 7,700-square-foot center will be a fully functioning general dentistry office with 16 treatment rooms, X-ray equipment, educational space and more. The state will own the land, and construction likely will begin next year, said Dr. Gregory Chadwick, associate dean for planning and extramural affairs at the dental school. Site selection is ongoing.

Full-time dental school faculty members will staff the center, along with dental hygienists and other staff members, and fourth-year dental students and residents will train at the center. Chadwick has described the centers as similar to “moving the fourth floor of the dental school — the clinical training — off campus to rural areas of our state where dental services are needed.”

State Rep. Mitch Gillespie of Marion, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said local and university officials worked six years to make the dental school and the Spruce Pine center a reality.

“These things don’t just happen,” he said. “They don’t magically appear. This took years to happen, and it’s a miracle it ever happened this year the way the budget was.”

Spruce Pine dentist Jim Thompson said the center will help recruit dentists to the rural mountain town as well as other rural communities. Typically, he said, dental graduates look to practice in larger towns. Spruce Pine has three dentists, only one younger than 60.

“I think it’s going to be great for the area and all rural areas,” he said. “It’s going to make a lot of difference.”

The ECU School of Dental Medicine will admit its first 52 students, all North Carolina residents, this month, with plans to admit approximately 50 each year.