This spring, the Greenville-based ECU opened a service learning center — a university outpost where students provide dental care to rural communities — in Sylva. The center, which serves Medicaid patients and also offers payment plans and sliding-scale rates, has a formal ribbon cutting June 27.
“I’m glad that they picked Sylva,” said Paula Carden, director of Jackson County Department of Public Health. “They seem to be doing well. I think they had a waiting list when they opened, some 300 people.”
The county’s health department shut down its own dental facility as ECU set up shop in Sylva. The new facility, Carden said, is better equipped to serve the community’s needs.
“It’s much better than what we could provide ‘em,” she explained. “It’s bigger, it’s state of the art.”
ECU has a number of service learning centers like the one in Sylva in rural areas throughout the state. The centers are staffed with university faculty and fourth-year dental students and general dentistry residents, allowing them to hone their skills while providing much needed care to underserved areas.
The centers are a cornerstone of the school’s mission.
“Our model is completely different than any other dental school in the country,” said Scholtz.
ECU’s dental school was created with a specific purpose in mind. It strives for a solution to a problem — combating the dearth of dentists in rural areas.
“We were established to address that shortage,” Scholtz said.
By dispatching its students to the various service learning centers, the school is hoping that some of the students will choose to put down roots in underserved areas. In fact, the school seeks out such students when selecting applicants.
And ECU has garnered a reputation for this approach, attracting about 400 applicants for the school’s 50 slots. The students are drawn to the institution’s mission.
“They come to our dental school with the intent of going back to rural areas to practice,” Scholtz said.
That’s what attracted Rebecca Ferguson. She’s a fourth-year ECU student now stationed in Sylva.
“I really like ECU’s mission,” she said. “I thought that was a really innovative way to address the access to care problem in North Carolina.”
Ferguson is closer to home now than she was at ECU’s home base in Greenville. She grew up in Waynesville, where her dad has a dental practice.
Students in the ECU dental program rotate through several of the school’s service learning centers before their education is finished. Sylva is Ferguson’s first rotation, but she plans to return westward when she’s done with school.
“I would like to come back to the mountains,” she said. “I don’t know if it’ll be Waynesville, or maybe Sylva, or maybe somewhere farther west.”
That’s ECU’s plan. It is hoped that students will choose to locate themselves post-graduation in the rural areas they have become acquainted with. As the school is only a few years old — with current fourth-year students making up the first class — it is not yet known how such a plan will play out.
“The proof will be in the pudding, as they say,” said Scholtz, adding that he’s optimistic about the success of the school’s mission. “I feel pretty confident that some of the students will stick around in these rural and underserved communities.”
Ferguson, familiar with the allure of her current station in Sylva, is guessing that the beauty of rural North Carolina will snag a few of her compatriots.
“I have a feeling that a lot of students, once they see how beautiful Sylva is, they’ll be tempted to come back,” she said.
East Carolina University’s dental center in Sylva strives to serve an area that currently lacks in available dental care. Services offered range from general dentistry, to root canals to digital radiography and 3-D/cone beam imaging.
The facility is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. To make an appointment, call 828.586.1200.