There is local interest and a need to establish a dental school at East Tennessee State University, but such a school will be very expensive, according to a report from a consultant tasked with studying the feasibility of such a proposal.
Wilsie Bishop, ETSU’s vice president for health affairs and university CEO, said she was pleased the Pittsburgh-based consulting firm Tripp Umbach agreed with a school committee that identified a lack of dentists in the region.
“They validated our survey techniques and information and added some more insights, but basically they agreed with that,” Bishop said.
ETSU formed an exploratory committee in October 2010 to investigate the feasibility of establishing a dental school. Thirty people are on the committee, which has been meeting regularly since November 2010. The majority of the committee is comprised of dentists from around the region. Some local leaders and ETSU personnel also are on the committee, including Bishop.
The committee recommended the hiring of a consultant and Tripp Umbach was chosen. The firm was paid $25,000.
The ETSU dental committee met Tuesday night to receive Tripp Umbach’s report.
This report was not a final draft, lacking only input from the committee, which was gathered Tuesday and will be ultimately included.
Besides validating a survey by the committee, the report included a more comprehensive and detailed budget than the committee had used this past spring to say the school would likely cost $78 million to start up and then $17 million each year thereafter to maintain.
The firm reported figures would be a little higher than that, with the construction of a building alone costing $78 million.
“Their yearly operating costs are running a couple million dollars higher than what we’d originally projected,” Bishop said.
But Bishop said she feels more comfortable with the firm’s numbers, because the firm’s budget was broken down into sections and opportunities for funding and revenue were identified. Expenses were broken down more realistically, too.
The firm was clear, Bishop said, that funding a dental school would take multiple sources, including philanthropy, grants, tuition, practice plans and state or federal dollars. Government money can sometimes be dependent on local philanthropy.
Bishop did say most dental schools in the country have about 22 percent of their funding come from government support. It would be unrealistic to think government funding would not be part of an ETSU dental school, she said.
“Dentistry is typically your more expensive school in any health science center,” Bishop said. “I think the committee was very aware of the reality that this was going to be a costly proposal and we’re going to need support. I think they’re (the committee) beginning to switch gears to think strategically.”
Because economic impact for the state from an ETSU dental school was estimated to be in the tens of millions by Tripp Umbach, Bishop said perhaps that could be an incentive for Nashville to invest.
Bishop said ETSU would have to be mindful of other state schools when considering funding options, including the only other state-funded dental school in Memphis.
Because an ETSU dental school would potentially serve areas in Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina, there may be opportunities to help create an ETSU school from those areas, Bishop said.
“There are a lot of strategies we may pursue, and one is to talk to our neighbors across the line and see if a partnership or collaboration is possible,” Bishop said.
ETSU President Paul E. Stanton Jr. initiated the discussion on the dental school but he will retire in January. Brian Noland will succeed him, so it will be up to him to proceed with or cease discussion of a dental school.
“Dr. Stanton and Dr. Noland have both agreed that this is ultimately going to be President Noland’s decision,” Bishop said.
Bishop hopes to be able to meet with Noland around March and provide more information about the feasibility of establishing a dental school.
East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., recently established a dental school. The project took 10 years. Bishop said most schools that have plans in place now to establish a dental school have a projected opening date of 2020.
Bishop said a dental school has the potential to be extremely beneficial for the region, but it could take years to get a school up and running. Because of the length of time it would take, Bishop said the committee wants to have information ready soon for Noland.