Jan. 17, 2024
How a new VCU School of Dentistry building would benefit all Virginians
Lyndon Cooper, dean of the school, outlines how patients and communities statewide will benefit alongside students, faculty and researchers.
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As the only dental school in the state, the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry plays a critical role in educating the next generation of dental professionals and supporting the oral health of communities across the commonwealth.
VCU is seeking to build a new home for the School of Dentistry on the VCU Health Campus, as its 70-plus-year-old facilities are beyond their useful life and no longer meet the needs of its students or patients.
Lyndon F. Cooper, D.D.S., Ph.D., dean of the school, recently offered insight into why the proposed new building is needed and how it would enhance oral health care across Virginia.
VCU is seeking support from Virginia to build a new School of Dentistry building. Why is this new facility needed?
The current school consists of three buildings, cobbled together decades apart with a significant portion more than 70 years old. Virginia deserves a state-of-the-art dental school. The oral health of every community in the commonwealth depends on it.
We are requesting funds in the state’s next biennial budget to begin planning for the construction of a new School of Dentistry building on the VCU Health Campus.
New facilities planned specifically with our communities’ needs in mind would allow us to welcome more patients, create environments accommodating those with special needs, support continued innovation in clinical care and research, tackle workforce challenges and compete with schools in other states for the highest-caliber students and faculty.
How would the proposed new School of Dentistry building improve VCU dental students’ education? And how would it enhance care for patients?
We need a building with an advanced technological infrastructure conducive to the latest trends in clinical care and education. It will facilitate highly efficient care for our patients, where many restorative needs, such as crowns and dentures, can be manufactured in-house to decrease costs and increase access to care. It will also support teledentistry initiatives that can reach underserved communities throughout the state.
Modern facilities will transform the care we give, especially for our most vulnerable pediatric and adult patients with special needs. A new building will enable us to deploy state-of-the-art equipment and enhance the training that dentists need to provide care for Virginia’s diverse population.
Our outstanding track record of training dentists must be extended, and it requires outstanding faculty and students who are attracted to cutting-edge facilities. Among the 72 dental schools in the U.S., 10 are brand new, and others have constructed new facilities. Our 70-year-old school will no longer be competitive in the recruitment of some of the most talented students and faculty.
Finally, our patients deserve a welcoming environment that expresses our focus on cultural competency and care. A new building can provide ease of access, comfort and safety that our current spaces cannot provide. A thoughtfully designed building will more seamlessly connect dentistry with VCU Health and the other VCU Health Sciences schools, inspiring new and unique partnerships that improve health care and inspire new research.
What are the costs to not moving forward with a new School of Dentistry building?
Simply stated, we cannot fulfill the educational, clinical, research and service ideals of our mission in our current buildings. Eventually, our facilities will reach the point where they cannot be maintained.
Without space to expand our research facilities, we are leaving millions of dollars of funding on the table and hindering our ability to conduct complex biomedical research. We will be challenged to adopt new technologies that represent the future of dental care and education.
Our state’s workforce will suffer. Without clinical and faculty expansion, we cannot grow our Dental Hygiene program, one of just two bachelor’s degree programs in the state. We also cannot significantly enlarge our network of service-learning partner clinics, which allow our students to provide care to communities across the commonwealth in a supervised setting.
We have made great strides in increasing efficiencies to serve more patients, but we cannot keep up with demand in our current facilities.
What are the most significant oral health challenges in Virginia? And how is the School of Dentistry working to address them?
Disparities in access to oral health care is a principal challenge. Every Virginian, regardless of their social, economic, physical or mental well-being, deserves access to high-quality oral health care. Virginia ranked last among 27 states in access to dental care for persons with developmental disabilities, according to the Virginia Board for People with Disabilities’ recent 2023 Assessment of Virginia’s Disability Services System: Accessibility of Dental Care.
Too many of our residents living in rural and economically disadvantaged urban communities struggle to find care. We have changing demographics, including more elderly citizens and cancer survivors than ever — all representing unique oral health needs that require innovative educational models and specialized training for proper care.
We accommodate more than 100,000 appointments each year, and we are the commonwealth’s largest provider of dental care to patients insured by Medicaid. In the last year, we opened a specialty clinic for patients with orofacial pain, doubled the number of oral surgeries we perform and increased our urgent care capacity by 66% through operational efficiencies.
Our school reaches far outside its walls to impact communities in every corner of the state through service-learning partnerships, participation in events providing free oral health care and delivering oral health education at schools and other community settings.
We are pursuing innovative solutions, including in-house manufacturing of crowns, bridges and dentures to affordably meet the restorative needs of our aging residents.
We are making a difference, but we are capable of so much more. New facilities will allow us to meet the needs of our communities and fulfill the aspirations of our talented students and faculty.
Looking ahead, where do you see dental education headed? What is your vision for VCU’s role in that future?
Dental schools have increasingly become safety net clinics for their communities. We must embrace this role empathetically and provide all patients with the highest level of care. We must also recognize the importance of a diverse workforce to address the needs of increasingly diverse communities. The demand for oral health care in our state is overwhelming, and we will never be able to meet it without educational and clinical expansion.
Our school has a strong history of training outstanding dental specialists. We are committed to a culture where dental specialists inform the general practitioner as a means of ensuring the highest standards of clinical training and patient care. New facilities will allow us to organize our school around this model, which also strengthens our ability to partner with community providers on caring for patients with complex needs. We are and will remain an important referral source for dentists throughout Virginia.
Dentistry is driven by innovation and technological advances. If we do not keep up, we will quickly fall behind other schools, and our students will not graduate with the skills needed to enter their profession at a high level.
The VCU School of Dentistry will continue to take a lead role in addressing many of our state’s oral health challenges, and new facilities will provide the catalyst needed to make significant progress on many fronts. I envision a future where the exceptional education and clinical care that we provide at our school helps drive comprehensive solutions informed by our many community partners. Our state faces an important choice, and I hope we choose the path that’s in the best interest of the commonwealth.
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